Will Austria elect a Green liberal or a far-right Eurosceptic as its new president?

Contest between Norbert Hofer and Alexander Van der Bellen is the first in a series that could change Europe’s political DNA

It's a cold, sunny morning in Pinkafeld, a pretty town of 5,500 an hour south of Vienna. The streets are quiet and lined with brightly painted Jugendstil, or art-nouveau, houses. A Marian column towers over memorials to the dead of two World Wars.

Off the main square, in the cheery Cafe Ulreich, pensioners slurp coffee and peruse the papers as, on the sound system, the late Austropop star Falco sings in his trademark rap belch: “If it wasn’t so sad, so shockingly scary, you’d have to laugh nonstop.”

That's a fair description of the mood in Austria these days. What began 11 months ago as a presidential election for a largely symbolic head of state will end on Sunday as a proxy battle for Austria's soul.

Voters have a choice between two men with very different ideas about Austria's future. One candidate is Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old Green Party leader who wants Austria to remain a liberal, open, pro-European Union country. He narrowly won the run-off in May only for Austria's highest court to annul the result because of problematic postal votes.

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Now Van der Bellen is neck and neck in polls with Norbert Hofer, the 45-year-old candidate of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). Hofer has run an anti-establishment, Eurosceptic, "Austria first" campaign that he hopes will hand him the keys to the Hofburg Palace and make him postwar Europe's first far-right populist head of state.

With a Trump White House and a Hofer Hofburg, a Le Pen Élysée in 2017 no longer seems a fanciful thought.

Here in Cafe Ulreich locals have watched the campaign with particular interest. Hofer lives here, is a cafe regular and won more than 60 per cent of the local vote last time around.

“I see him here occasionally. He’s very approachable and authentic, not like the others in politics,” says Anna, a pensioner, over her morning coffee.

Approachability has been as much a Hofer trademark in this election as the walking stick he has used since a paragliding accident in 2003. He has played the anti-elite card in the campaign, distancing himself from the Viennese political establishment to which he has belonged for two decades.

He has also distanced himself from the younger Norbert Hofer, who joined a far-right student fraternity and flirted in with ultranationalist views and far-right figures.

The FPÖ man up for election tomorrow has sold himself as a God-fearing son-in-law, far from the FPÖ’s brutish leader, Karl-Heinz Strache, and light years from the far-right FPÖ programme that Hofer himself largely drafted.

“We have a dream that it should be like it used to be,” he said this week, “where house and prosperity came through work, not speculation.”

Critical of globalisation and supportive of Moscow, Hofer has given the occasional flash of steel, threatening, if elected, to dismiss the current Social Democrat-conservative (ÖVP) coalition and call fresh elections that, according to polls, his party would win.

He later distanced himself from the remark, but that smoking gun – Hofer is a Glock enthusiast – remains on the table.

Globalisation and migration

Sitting in his office in Pinkafeld town hall, Kurt Maczek has so many positive things to say about Hofer and the FPÖ that it’s a surprise the town’s mayor is a social democrat. Here in Burgenland, which borders Hungary, Maczek sits in the state parliament, where his Social Democrats are in coalition with the FPÖ. That is a political alliance many here think has a future in Vienna.

For years, the mayor says, the bigger parties ignored people’s concerns, among them globalisation and migration. That has come back to haunt them with a refugee crisis that saw Austria accept 90,000 asylum seekers, more people per head of population than Germany took in.

Spend some time in Hofer’s pretty and prosperous town – home to 100 asylum seekers – and it soon becomes clear that concrete fears that the refugee crisis will drain the welfare system have blurred with primal angst about “the other”.

“I get anonymous letters from women who are afraid of going jogging or complaints from fathers who fear for their daughters,” Maczek says. The situation hasn’t escalated “yet”, but there is an unpleasant mood. Flashing a steely gaze, he adds: “Islam is extreme, and there is a danger that this culture gets the upper hand here, as in the past.”

In a nearby cafe Andrea Gottweis, a local ÖVP politician, rolls her eyes when she hears the mayor’s name, dismissing him as a populist: “I got into politics because I thought our job was to present long-term strategies, not to pander to, and take advantage of, people’s base fears.”

The FPÖ, founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s, has always been good at picking up the popular mood. In the past 15 years – the post-Jörg Haider era – the party has zeroed in on scapegoating foreigners, particularly Muslim “invaders”, for Austria’s ills. For the FPÖ the refuge crisis has been a godsend. Now other parties are playing catch-up.

“In Austrian politics,” Gottweis says sadly, “it’s increasingly difficult to pull things from populism back to sense.”

At the back of Pinkafeld town hall seven Syrian men and women are taking a German class. Eduard Posch, a volunteer, tells of how Pinkafeld took in Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and Bosnians in the 1990s.

The FPÖ’s winning strategy, of repackaging old-school xenophobia as legitimate voter “concerns”, has made things tough here, he says. A local doctor who volunteers with refugees had the SS symbol sprayed on his practice door. Today, Posch says, Austria is at the forefront of a pan-European phenomenon.

“These nationalist populists blame the EU as being incompetent in the refugee crisis,” he says, “yet they are the first to prevent EU agreements and burden sharing in Brussels.”

During Hofer's 11-month campaign, has the presidential hopeful ever stopped at the refugee centre in his home town? Posch smiles and likens the FPÖ candidate to the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood who eats chalk to disguise his voice.

“Today he’s the sunny boy, but in reality he’s the FPÖ chief ideologue. If elected, I think, it’ll be very difficult for him to be an independent head of state – if he even wants to be.”

An hour north, in the capital, where lots of Hofer posters carry Hitler moustaches, the former president Heinz Fischer has led the establishment endorsement of Van der Bellen.

Fischer has known the 72-year-old for many years and believes that he has the right qualities to be head of state, “in particular for handling the great European project”.

He dismisses the idea that his strident vote of confidence in Van der Bellen is, on the flip side, a vote of no confidence in the ability of Austria’s democratic checks and balances to survive a President Hofer and his FPÖ administration.

"Our democracy is very strong, and I haven't the least concern that it would be endangered," Fischer tells The Irish Times.

Van der Bellen’s main problem is that he commands little enthusiasm among Austrians, in particular conservative rural voters wary of the Viennese liberal. Just 31,000 votes separated the two men last time out; now both camps claim that Trump and Brexit will benefit their candidate.

Opening shot

From his office overlooking the palace, seat of the Habsburg monarchy and now a museum and presidential residence, the political analyst Peter Hajek is wary of predicting Sunday’s vote. The only near certainty is that the presidential result will be the opening shot in early parliamentary elections next year, a poll that will hinge on anti-establishment voter fury and deep-seated globalisation anxiety. “But even populism has its political limits,” Hajek says, “and we’re seeing people pushing back against Orban in Hungary, and in Poland.”

Given those governments, an FPÖ administration is unlikely to spark EU sanctions, as it did in 2000. If anything, European political leaders know they are facing the same two questions as their Austrian colleagues. The first is how best to respond to voter fears and shore up the welfare state in an era of globalised finance, production and corporate tax avoidance. And, just as tricky, how to respond to voters if some of their “fears” are irrational, racist and contrary to European values of diversity and tolerance.

Back in Cafe Ulreich, in Pinkafeld, the smiling eyes of Maria, a fiftysomething, turn steely at the mention of the local presidential hopeful. " 'Der Hofer' is a local, yes, but, naja . . . " Her voice peters out as her outstretched hand tilts back and forth.

Tilting back and forth, Austria’s choice on Sunday evening kicks off a series of elections that could bring far-reaching change to Europe’s political and cultural DNA.

On the cafe sound system, Falco, sounding as constipated as ever, belches on: “It’s not easy to report the how and why, the sky is still blue but who knows for how long . . . ”