Who is Norbert Hofer and should Europe be worried about him?

Norbert Hofer is a 45-year-old aeronautical engineer turned politician for Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FP0). He is locked in a dead heat with his opponent in Austria's presidential election, with the high-stakes race still too close to call.

What is the state of the election?

The direct votes gave Hofer 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent for Alexander Van der Bellen, a Greens politician running as an independent. But final projections that included still-to-be-counted absentee ballots put each at 50 per cent with Van der Bellen narrowly ahead. Those nearly 700,000 absentee ballots will be counted tomorrow, making them the likely decider by a minuscule portion of votes, considering that 4.48 million people voted directly today.

How would I pick him out from a crowd?

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Hofer is not your traditional right-wing demagogue. He is softly spoken - "doe-eyed" as one German newspaper described him, and he walks with a stick following a hand-gliding accident. Oh, and he likes to carry a Glock 9mm pistol with him on the campaign trail.
He has given seminars in rhetoric and "neurolinguistic programming".
He is a smooth performer in front of the cameras and has been instrumental helping the FPO shed some of the harsher aspects of its image, turning the party once run by Jorg Haider into a vessel for broader discontent on the economy, immigration and security.

Why the heavy weaponry?

Hofer says carrying guns is a "natural consequence" of immigration and likes to post pictures of him and his family (he has four children) on gun ranges. He recently said that he understood the rising gun ownership in Austria, "given current uncertainties". In short, it's designed to stoke fear about migration and migrants, one of the key issues that has fuelled the Freedom Party's surge in the polls. Last year the migrant crisis added 90,000 migrants to Austria's population of 8.6 million. That's more than 1 per cent.

So is he really a Nazi in disguise?

Depends who you talk to. Hofer was responsible for drafting the new Freedom Party manifesto which has taken the party back to its nationalist roots, focusing on "identity" - that's code for native Austrians, not immigrants or their children. He has also been spotted wearing the blue cornflower, which is an old clandestine Nazi symbol that harks back to ideas of pan-Germanism, the nineteenth century idea of a 'greater Germany' that ultimately inspired Hitler's foreign policy and the annexations and invasions that triggered World War II. He's also an honorary member of the student fraternity, Marko-Germania zu Pinkafeld, which has strong links to Austria's nationalist right-wing. His defenders - who include other populist leaders like Marine Le Pen of France's National Front, Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Deutschland and Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom - say he's a "patriot" who is merely recognising the concerns of ordinary people that have been ignored by Europe's political elites for too long.

A man walks between election posters of Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer. Photo / AP
A man walks between election posters of Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer. Photo / AP
If he wins, will he have any real power?

The Austrian presidency is largely ceremonial, but Hofer has already made it clear he will use those limited powers to their fullest extent. His most important power is the ability to dissolve the Parliament - although traditionally that power is ceremonial. He has also promised to attend EU meetings, a role usually reserved for the Austrian Chancellor and will refuse to sign the controversial transatlantic "TTIP" trade deal with the US which he says impinges unacceptably on Austrian sovereignty.

So what's to worry about?

A lot, from the point of view of the custodians of a liberal, centre-ground Europe like Jean-Claude Junker, the President of the European Commission, who has already warned of the consequences of a Hofer presidency for the EU. His election would carry huge symbolism. Hofer would be the first far-right president to be elected in the European Union's history and - both his detractors and supporters warn - that could prove a catalyst for other populist and anti-establishment movements currently surging across Europe, to grab power. In France, Marine Le Pen is expected to reach the second round of next year's presidential election, while in Holland Wilder's Party of Freedom is currently topping the polls and in Germany the anti-Islamic Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) has caused Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, to warn of a return to nationalism. Establishment politicians across Europe would look on a Hofer victory and many will be very afraid.

- additional reporting AP