Austrian election: Far-right candidate and rival virtually tied

Presidential run-off to be decided on Monday with counting of postal ballots

Independent presidential candidate, supported by the Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen  and Norbert Hofer of far right-wing Austrian Freedom Party as they attend a TV interview on the Austrian presidential elections run-off in Vienna. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

Independent presidential candidate, supported by the Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer of far right-wing Austrian Freedom Party as they attend a TV interview on the Austrian presidential elections run-off in Vienna. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

 

The preliminary result of Austria’s presidential vote on Sunday showed far-right candidate Norbert Hofer ahead of independent Alexander van der Bellen, but by a margin so narrow that as-yet uncounted postal ballots were set to prove decisive, according to interior ministry data.

Mr Hofer was in the lead on 51.9 per cent, ahead of former Greens leader Alexander van der Bellen on 48.1 per cent, the data showed.

Both candidates said the result woud not be known until Monday, when a count of postal ballots was due to finish.

A Sora projection for ORF television made the race a statistical dead heat.

The result was due to be announced on Sunday but postal ballots will not all be counted until Monday.

Candidates backed by the dominant Social Democratic and politically central People’s Party were eliminated in last month’s first round, which means neither will become president for the first time since the end of the second World War.

Disillusionment

That reflects deep disillusionment with the political status quo and their approach to the migration crisis and other issues.

At his final rally Friday, Mr Van der Bellen said he was for “an open, Europe-friendly, Europe-conscious Austria” – an indirect contrast to what Mr Hofer is offering.

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.

The elections are reverberating beyond Austria’s borders, with a Mr Hofer win being viewed by European parties of all political stripes as evidence of a further advance of populist Eurosceptic parties at the expense of the establishment.

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

Mr Van der Bellen says he would not swear in a Freedom Party chancellor even if that party wins the next election, 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.

Political isolation for Austria could also be in the offing. Mr Hofer as president is unlikely to be welcomed in most European capitals as governments there try to keep their populist Eurosceptic parties in check.

The Freedom Party’s anti-Muslim campaigning also could result in governments in the Middle East avoiding him.

It would not be a first for Austria. Former president Kurt Waldheim, who was backed by the People’s Party, was boycotted internationally decades ago after disclosures that he served in a German unit linked to atrocities in the second World War.

Agencies