Austria may elect Europe’s only far-right president Sunday – USA TODAY

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Austrians on Sunday may elect the European Union’s only¬†far-right leader, an outcome¬†that would¬†reflect a growing backlash over the recent flood of migrants entering Europe and rise of¬†populist parties across the continent.

Recent polls¬†indicate that¬†Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer, 45, has a strong chance of defeating Green Party-backed¬†Alexander Van der Bellen,¬†72, to win Austria’s presidency.

Hofer, an aviation engineer who has carried his Glock handgun on the campaign trail, won 35% of the vote in the first round last month. Ex-economics professor and refugee descendant Van der Bellen received 21%. The outcome, a stunning defeat for the centrist parties accustomed to running Austria, prompted Chancellor Werner Faymann to resign.

While the presidency is a¬†largely ceremonial post¬†that does not¬†directly affect government policy, Sunday’s¬†winner will occupy a position that¬†has been dominated by Austria’s two mainstream parties since World War II: the center-right¬†People‚Äôs Party and¬†center-left¬†Social Democratic Party.¬†With general elections expected before¬†2018, A Hofer victory could boost his Freedom Party’s influence in Austria¬†and¬†encourage other European¬†far-right political movements.

“It’s possible that he would change the political atmosphere here and his supporters would feel they could demand tougher anti-immigration rules and policies that might help the Freedom Party gain votes at the next parliamentary elections,” said¬†Heinz G√§rtner, a politics professor at the University of Vienna. “In the long run Austria¬†would probably¬†be seen as a right-wing¬†populist country and that might send¬†a clear signal to similar¬†voters and parties all across¬†Europe” that such views are acceptable, he said.

Anti-immigrant and stridently nationalistic parties have swept the continent recently. The far-right National Front led by Marine Le Pen has established itself as a major political force in France.

The¬†Conservative Law and Justice party cast aside nearly a decade of centrist rule in Poland by appealing to the instincts of those who resent Europe’s¬†biggest wave of migrants since World War II, most of them Muslims fleeing war and poverty.

In March, Germany’s EU-skeptic¬†Alternative for Deutschland party made strong gains in elections that marked¬†a repudiation of¬†Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open-door policy for migrants. Slovakia installed a right-wing government the same month.

Nationalist parties strongly opposed to the EU and liberal migration policies also are active in Denmark, Finland, Hungary and the Netherlands.

Austria received¬†90,000 asylum applications last year, but the¬†government has dramatically shifted from a policy of open borders to one of the EU‚Äôs most restrictive asylum¬†regimes amid domestic discontent over the new arrivals.¬†Hofer, who¬†vows¬†to further strengthen the nation’s¬†borders and migration controls,¬†has run a slick¬†campaign that obscured¬†his party’s¬†Nazi roots and struck a chord with voters who feel their concerns are not being heard.

“I think both candidates¬†love Austria and want the best for our country, so I really don’t want to say who is better,” said Marco Wagner, 27, a comedian who lives in Graz, Austria’s second-largest city.

“Austria is going through a difficult period, we need jobs for our people. …¬†¬†We also need jobs for the refugees,” he said.

Arnold Kammel, director of the Austrian Institute for European Policy and Security in¬†Vienna,¬†said:¬†“What we are seeing in Austria is similar to what is going on around the world, and that is the rise of anti-establishment movements.¬†People are fed up and disappointed with traditional politics and are looking for alternatives.”

Kammel¬†acknowledged¬†that Hofer’s rise¬†displays¬†parallels to the ascendance in the United States of Republican presidential candidate¬†Donald Trump, who has challenged the party’s establishment, but said the similarities may end there.¬†“Hofer¬†is not a typical Freedom Party politician. He’s known for being¬†calm, modest, not an outspoken critic, not a Trump,” he said.

G√§rtner, from the University of Vienna, said¬†Van der Bellen¬†is probably viewed as more experienced and trustworthy than¬†Hofer but lacks his rival’s charisma.

That may explain why Sabrina Watzenegger, 36, who works as a cleaner at a guesthouse in the western Austrian city of¬†G√∂tzis, said she would vote for Hofer even though she¬†supports¬†efforts to integrate refugees and has forged¬†close bonds with some of them. “Hofner can help solve our problems,” she¬†said.

Austria may elect Europe’s only far-right president Sunday – USA TODAY

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