Friday 21 October 2016

Dead-heat in Austrian poll as candidate rallies anti-Muslim sentiment

George Jahn in Vienna

Published 23/05/2016 | 02:30

Presidential candidate Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) casts his ballot. Photo: Reuters
Presidential candidate Norbert Hofer of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) casts his ballot. Photo: Reuters

With direct ballots counted but a final result still outstanding, yesterday's elections for Austria's presidency were too close to call a winner between a right-wing politician and a challenger whose views stand in stark opposition to his rival's anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic message.

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The direct votes gave right-winger Norbert Hofer 51.9pc to 48.1pc 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 50pc with Mr Van der Bellen narrowly ahead.

Those nearly 700,000 absentee ballots will be counted today, making them the likely decider by a minuscule portion of votes, considering that 4.48 million people voted directly yesterday.

Candidates backed by the long-dominant Social Democratic and centrist People's Party were eliminated in last month's first round, which means neither party would hold the presidency for the first time since the end of the Second World War. That reflects disillusionment with the status quo, and their approach to the migrant crisis and other issues.

But yesterday's voting revealed a profound split over which direction the nation should now take, particularly over migration and the future of the European Union.

Mr Van der Bellen's supporters back liberal refugee policies and a strong, unified EU. Mr Hofer's Freedom Party wants closed borders and campaigns consistently on strong anti-EU sentiment within the country.

Asked as he arrived to cast his ballot what differentiated him from Mr Hofer, Mr Van der Bellen said: "I think I'm pro-European and there are some doubts as far as Mr Hofer is concerned."

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 on Friday.

A Hofer win would be viewed by European parties as evidence of a further advance of populist Eurosceptic parties at the expense of the establishment.

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.

Irish Independent

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