Right-wing politician neck-and-neck with challenger in election

With all direct ballots counted in Austria's presidential election last night, a right-wing politician was in a statistical dead heat with a challenger whose views stand in direct opposition to his rival's anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic message.

Norbert Hofer greets supporters at the FPOe election party. Picture: Getty
Norbert Hofer greets supporters at the FPOe election party. Picture: Getty

Both right-winger Norbert Hofer and Alexander van der Bellen, a Greens politician running as an independent, had 50 per cent support with the direct votes tallied and absentee votes to be counted by today. Mr Van der Bellen was ahead with less than 3,000 votes. But with 4.48 million direct votes cast, the nearly 900,000 absentee ballots issued will likely make them the likely vote decider.

Candidates backed by the dominant Social Democratic and centrist People’s Party were eliminated in last month’s first round, which means neither party would hold the presidency for the first time since the end of the war. That reflects disillusionment with the status quo, and their approach to the migrant crisis and other issues.

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Mr Hofer and Mr Van der Bellen drew clear lines between themselves during the campaign.

Asked as he arrived to vote yesterday what differentiated him from Mr Hofer, Mr Van der Bellen said: “I think I’m pro-European and there are some doubts as far as Mr Hofer is concerned.” Mr Hofer, in turn, used his last pre-election gathering to deliver a message with anti-Muslim overtones.

“To those in Austria who go to war for the Islamic State or rape women – I say to those people: ‘This is not your home’,” he told a cheering crowd.

Later, Mr Hofer sought to soothe international fears that he is a radical far-righter.

The Austria Press Agency cited him as telling foreign reporters yesterday that he is “really OK,” and “not a dangerous person.” The elections are reverberating beyond Austria’s borders. A Hofer win would be viewed by European parties as evidence of a further advance of populist Eurosceptic parties at the expense of the establishment.

In Austria, the result could upend decades of business-as-usual politics, with candidates serving notice they are not satisfied with the ceremonial role for which most predecessors have settled.

Mr Van der Bellen says he would not swear in a Freedom Party chancellor even if that party wins the next elections, scheduled within the next two years. Mr Hofer has threatened to dismiss Austria’s government coalition of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party if it fails to heed his repeated admonitions to do a better job – and is casting himself as the final arbiter of how the government is performing.

“None of us wished for this,” Mr Hofer said when he and Mr Van der Bellen were interviewed after the vote. “After all, both of us wanted to have a good night’s sleep but it is so exciting. I’ve been in politics for a long time but I’ve never experienced an election night like this one.”

Whoever won, he said, would have “the job of uniting Austria”.In the first round, Mr Hofer secured 35 per cent of the votes, while Mr Van der Bellen polled 21 per cent.

The two rivals had engaged in an angry TV debate earlier in the week, described as “political mud-wrestling” by commentators.