Norbert Hofer After Trump and Brexit, Austria far-right eyes presidency

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Austria's presidency is largely ceremonial, but a win for Norbert Hofer would be a major prize for Europe's anti-establishment parties play

Austria's presidency is largely ceremonial, but a win for Norbert Hofer would be a major prize for Europe's anti-establishment parties

(AFP/File)

First Brexit. Then Trump. Now Austria?

The populist wave rising in many countries could claim a fresh victory Sunday if Norbert Hofer is elected Europe's first far-right president since 1945.

Four weeks since Donald Trump's stunning US election victory and five months after Britons voted to leave the EU, polls put the anti-immigration Hofer neck-and-neck with independent ecologist Alexander Van der Bellen.

Austria's presidency is largely ceremonial, but a win for Hofer would be a major prize for Europe's anti-establishment parties ahead of elections next year in France, Germany and The Netherlands.

The vote takes place the same day as an Italian referendum on constitutional reforms that could bring down Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and renew political upheaval in Europe's fourth-biggest economy.

The election also ends an 11-month campaign marathon that has been ugly by Austrian standards.

Austria's Freedom Party play

Austria's Freedom Party

(AFP)

Hofer posters were defaced with Hitler moustaches and Van der Bellen's with dog excrement. The latter's security detail was beefed up after death threats.

Hofer, 45, came top in the first round on April 24, knocking out for the first time in the post-war period candidates from the ruling centrist coalition -- made up of the Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party -- which have dominated Austrian politics.

In a May 22 runoff, Hofer lost by just 31,000 votes to Van der Bellen. But Hofer's Freedom Party (FPOe) secured a re-run because of procedural errors. The rematch was then postponed because of faulty glue on postal votes.

'Huge frustration'

Populist groups across Europe have benefitted from a growing sense of unease about globalisation and multiculturalism.

Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, has at times made it easier for his oponent by coming across as too left-wing, wooden and old play

Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, has at times made it easier for his oponent by coming across as too left-wing, wooden and old

(AFP/File)

While the financial crisis has sparked radical-left movements in Italy and Spain, the far-right has taken centre stage in wealthy northern and western countries, which have seen hundreds of thousands of migrants arrive since last year.

Despite migrant numbers falling sharply in recent months, the FPOe has managed to keep immigration on voters' minds by playing on fears of terrorist attacks and of a parallel Islamic society that supposedly rejects Austrian "values".

"There is huge frustration," political analyst Thomas Hofer (no relation) told AFP. Voters are "flocking to populist movements and the easy answers that are offered by those parties."

At his final election speech Thursday, Hofer said Austria belonged to the European Union, but would fight against "Brussels creating a centralised government".

Generally, he has struck a more moderate tone than FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache, who called German Chancellor Angela Merkel "the most dangerous woman in Europe" and has warned of "civil war".

With his ready smile, moderate tone and the slogan "unspoilt, honest, good", Hofer won over many centrist voters who in previous years would never have supported the FPOe, a party long accused of having ties to neo-Nazis.

"My wife, who goes to church every Sunday, says that she would vote for Hofer if it wasn't for all the people behind him in the FPOe," Werner, a pensioner walking his black-and-white dog in Vienna, told AFP.

An election win for Norbert Hofer could prompt Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, pictured, and the centre-right to pull the plug on their coalition and call elections play

An election win for Norbert Hofer could prompt Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, pictured, and the centre-right to pull the plug on their coalition and call elections

(AFP)

But at times Hofer has visibly lost his cool and behind the grin is a steely key ideologue within his party.

Islam, he has said, "has no place in Austria" and is a religion "that sees the whole world as a battleground". And Van der Bellen, his opponent, is a "communist" and a "green dictator".

'You'll be amazed'

Van der Bellen, 72, a somewhat scruffy economics professor, has at times made it easier for Hofer by coming across as too left-wing and wooden. His main strategy has been simply that he is not Hofer.

What a Hofer victory might mean is unclear.

Hitherto unused presidential powers could, in theory, allow him to fire Chancellor Christian Kern's government.

"You'll be amazed by what's possible," Hofer said before the first round, a comment made much of by Van der Bellen and which Hofer says he regrets having uttered.

More realistically, though, his victory could prompt Kern and the centre-right to pull the plug on their unhappy coalition and call early elections. And leading the polls right now is the FPOe.

Hofer's election run "is only one part of a longstanding effort to make an FPOe-led government, with real executive power, achievable by the next parliamentary election," said Charles Lichfield from the Eurasia think-tank.

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