Far-right Austrian presidential candidate in dead heat

By Anthony Faiola

Alexander Van der Bellen of the Austrian Greens, left, and Norbert Hofer, of Austria's Freedom Party, FPOE. Photo / AP
Alexander Van der Bellen of the Austrian Greens, left, and Norbert Hofer, of Austria's Freedom Party, FPOE. Photo / AP

Populist, far-right candidate Norbert Hofer was locked in a dead heat with his opponent in Austria's presidential election, with the high-stakes race still too close to call.

Hofer, a 45-year old who campaigned on an anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and anti-establishment platform, was winning 50 per cent of the vote.

So, too, was Alexander Van der Bellen, a longtime Green Party politician running as an independent, according to the SORA Institute, which based its projections on more than 99.8 per cent of the official count of the direct vote. The projections have a 0.7 percentage-point margin of error. Van der Bellen was ahead by a mere 3000 votes.

Officials said the race was so tight that a clear winner, initially expected today, might not emerge until hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots are counted tomorrow. Voter turnout was relatively high, almost 72 per cent.

The closeness of the race turned an election being watched across Europe into a nail-biter, with the outcome potentially reverberating far beyond the Alpine nation of 8.5 million.

The unexpected strength of Hofer's candidacy - the Freedom Party politician had a surprise first-place finish in an initial round last month - caught many observers off guard. It reflected, analysts say, the historical roots of Austria's far-right. But it has also seemed to capture the populist zeitgeist coursing through the West - from the United States to Europe.

Hofer has called, for instance, for a fence on Austria's southern border to keep migrants out and has denounced Islam as a threat to Europe's Christian identity. His opponent has preached tolerance and acceptance.

"We'll have to wait until tomorrow," Hofer told reporters. After casting his vote earlier in the day in Pinkafeld, a city in his eastern home state of Burgenland, Hofer replied in English after being asked about fears that he would push a far-right agenda.

"I'm not a dangerous person," he said.

Van der Bellen, meanwhile, told reporters in the capital, Vienna, that he was "cautiously optimistic" of a win. He asked for a moment of silence for the victims of a gun rampage at a music festival in western Austria. A 27-year-old man shot randomly into the crowd, killing two people and wounding 11 before turning the gun on himself, according to authorities.

Firearms had become a major issue in the Austrian campaign, with Hofer being criticised for publicly proclaiming his love of shooting. Under pressure to appeal to conservative voters, even van der Bellen this month was compelled to publicly reject accusations of being a "hunter hater".

A win by Hofer could embolden the far-right across Europe while rocking Austrian politics. Since the early 20th century, the post of Austrian president has been largely ceremonial. But Hofer has vowed to flex the muscles of the office in new ways. He has threatened, for example, to use his power to fire the sitting government - a ruling coalition of the two parties that have dominated Austrian politics since the end of World War II - if it does not control migration.

- Washington Post

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