Austrian election could produce EU’s first far-right head of state – Reuters

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VIENNA Austria could elect the European Union’s first far-right head of state on Sunday, with support for Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer buoyed by a migration crisis that has heightened fears about employment and security.

Opinion polls suggest the presidential run-off between Hofer and former Greens leader Alexander van der Bellen will be close. A far-right victory would resonate across the 28-member EU, where migration driven by conflict and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere has become a major political issue.

Support for groups like the eurosceptic, anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) has been rising in various countries, whether they have taken in many migrants in the recent influx, like Germany and Sweden, or not, like France and Britain.

Most are still far from achieving majority support. The FPO has been in government before, serving as a coalition partner in the early 2000s when it was led by the late Joerg Haider.

But whoever wins the presidential election, it is likely to be a new high-water mark for Austria’s and Europe’s far right, all the more significant for being in a prosperous country with comparatively low, albeit rising, unemployment.

If Hofer wins, mainstream parties will also come under scrutiny for not recommending an anti-FPO vote. Many feel that would only have bolstered the FPO’s argument that it is taking on Austria’s deeply entrenched political establishment.


In Austria, the president traditionally plays a largely ceremonial role but swears in the chancellor and can dismiss the cabinet.

“I have to work for one or two years and then everybody will see that I am OK, I am not a dangerous person,” Hofer, 45, told reporters after voting in his eastern hometown of Pinkafeld.

Hofer, deputy leader of the FPO, is known as the gentler face of the party but has only recently become a household name.

Austria took in 90,000 asylum seekers last year, more than 1 percent of its population, many of them shortly after it and neighbouring Germany opened their borders last autumn to a wave of migrants including refugees from Syria’s civil war.

The government has since clamped down on immigration and asylum, but that failed to slow rising support for the FPO, which was already capitalising on widespread frustration with Austria’s two traditional parties of government.

Sunday’s run-off election comes four weeks after Hofer, 45, won the first round with 35 percent of the vote. Opinion polls had suggested his support was much lower, though they regularly show his party ahead of its rivals on more than 30 percent.

Van der Bellen, 72, who scored 21 percent in the first round, said after voting in Vienna that he was “cautiously optimistic”.

A projection will be published when the last polling stations close at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT), and the result is due to be announced after 7 p.m. A high number of postal ballots has raised the prospect of the result being unclear until Monday.

Tabloid reports of immigrants availing themselves of Austria’s generous benefits and of crimes in which immigrants have been suspects, have played into the FPO’s hands.

A Gallup poll for the Oesterreich newspaper last weekend found Hofer ahead by a 53-47 margin based on 600 people surveyed. But it was a dead heat among those who said they were certain to vote, a key factor after nearly a third of eligible voters failed to cast ballots in the first round.

Bookmakers, however, gave Hofer as favourite. Betting website, for example, gave odds of 1.45-to-one for Hofer and 2.55-to-one for van der Bellen.

(Additional reporting by Suzana Sabljic in Pinkafeld, Austria; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Ryan Woo)

Austrian election could produce EU’s first far-right head of state – Reuters