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’s 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 Gärtner, 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’s 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.

Gärtner, 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 Götzis, 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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