Polarised Austria faces presidential vote

Norbert Hofer sings on stage at final election rally (20 May)Image copyright

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Norbert Hofer won more than a third of the vote in the first round of the presidential vote

“Immer wieder Oesterreich,” – Austria, again and again – sang supporters of Norbert Hofer at his final campaign rally before Sunday’s presidential run-off election.

It was a sunny evening in a working-class district of Vienna. Some people had brought along their children, others their dogs. They waved Austrian flags and carried blue balloons – the colour of the far-right Freedom Party.

Many of them believe that victory for Mr Hofer is within reach.

In the first round of the presidential election in April, he won a clear victory, 35% of the vote compared with the 21% gained by his nearest rival, Alexander van der Bellen, who is backed by the Greens.

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Hofer supporters were confident of victory at the party’s final rally on Friday evening

It represented the Freedom Party’s best result ever at a federal level.”Immer wieder Oesterreich,” “Austria, again and again,” sang supporters of Norbert Hofer, at his final campaign rally for President.

For the first time since World War Two, the two parties that have dominated Austrian politics for decades, the Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party, were both knocked out of the race.

A political earthquake had occurred in this small, wealthy central European country.

And there were consequences. Shortly afterwards, the Social Democrat leader, Chancellor Werner Faymann, resigned after a revolt in his party over the failure to stop the Freedom Party, which has been on the rise here for years.

And now the smiling, softly spoken Mr Hofer could be on the verge of becoming the first far-right head of state in the European Union. The run-off vote on Sunday is expected to be close.

Media captionKatya Adler reports on the “friendly face” of the far-right

Austria’s presidency is a largely ceremonial post but it includes powers to dismiss the government.

Political analyst Thomas Hofer (no relation) says the success of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party has much to do with long-term and deep-seated discontent with the political status quo in Austria – fuelled by the migrant crisis.

Ninety-thousand people claimed asylum here last year, equivalent to about 1% of the Austrian population.

“The government of Mr Faymann was seen as a do-nothing government by many Austrians.

“It’s not so much the strength of the Freedom Party that we see in Austria,” he said.

“It’s the weakness of the ruling parties and of course the public agenda, the refugee crisis and unemployment really played well for the Freedom Party.”

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Anti-Freedom Party demonstrators want an “open Austria”

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Norbert Hofer – could he be the EU’s first far-right president?

In the small town of Untersiebenbrunn, east of Vienna, where 53% percent voted for Mr Hofer, a local Freedom Party councillor, Dieter Dorner, said he was “worried about immigrants that want to change our culture, our society.”

“That is a growing problem,” he told me. “And this makes the fear of the people grow.”

They are concerned, he said, about “the possibility that our culture will be changed radically due to more EU regulations, due to strange religions.”

Norbert Hofer has threatened to fire the government if it fails to take a tougher line on migrants or boost the economy. He has also said he would not swear in a female minister who wore a hijab, which he has described as a sign of oppression.

His opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen, has said he would not swear in the anti-EU Freedom Party leader, Heinz Christian Strache, as chancellor, if the party were to win a general election.

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Alexander Van der Bellen is running as an independent but is supported by the Greens

“The real danger is a Freedom Party president who dismisses the government to clear the way for a blue [Freedom Party] republic,” Mr Van der Bellen has said.

Austria is polarised.

On Thursday a group of several hundred left-wing protesters gathered in front of the Hofburg presidential palace in Vienna to demonstrate against the far right.

Some carried banners saying “No Nazis in the Hofburg”. One of them, Maxi, told me he was demonstrating against the Freedom Party’s “racism and inhumane politics.”

“We hope we can make a statement for open-minded Austria and to give a little help to the refugees,” he said.

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Freedom Party councillor Dieter Dorner says people are concerned that their culture will be changed

In recent years, the Freedom Party has toned down some of its harsher rhetoric, but the analyst Thomas Hofer says it continues to targets immigrants and Muslims.

“It’s a far-right party, there is no question about that. It has members that say outrageous things including, but not only, about the Third Reich.

“But they are changing their strategy. They are trying to appear more centrist than they were, like the National Front does in France.”

A victory by Mr Hofer is likely to be seen as an encouraging signal to other European far-right and populist movements.

Florian Kotanko, a retired headmaster from the town of Braunau, who is supporting Mr Van der Bellen, thinks that if Mr Hofer were elected president, there would be more damage for Austria’s image abroad than for its domestic politics.

“If Mr Hofer wins, he won’t be able to bring all his ideas in. But if Austria gets a president from the extreme right, there will be a lot of discussion about Austria’s position in the European family.”

“So for foreign policy and for the economy and for exports, it will be more important than for interior politics, I think,” the retired headmaster adds.

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