Austria is voting in a re-run of a presidential election which pits the leader of the far-right Freedom Party Norbert Hofer against former Green Party head Alexander Van der Bellen.
Last May’s vote was narrowly won by Alexander Van der Bellen, but the result was overturned by Austria’s highest court because of irregularities in the count.
If Norbert Hofer wins, he will become the EU’s first far-right head of state.
Opinion polls held in November suggest the vote is too close to call.
Although the president’s role is largely ceremonial in Austria, the vote is being watched as a barometer of how well populist candidates will do in upcoming elections.
France, the Netherlands and Germany all face elections in 2017 and anti-mainstream and anti-immigration parties are gaining ground.
The direction in which Austria will take with regard to the EU is also closely watched.
Norbert Hofer has campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, and initially said Austria could follow Britain’s vote to leave the EU with a referendum of its own. Alexander Van der Bellen has told Austrians it is proof that Norbert Hofer is in favor of “Oexit” (a reference to Austria’s name in German, Oesterreich).
However, at a party meeting on December 2, Norbert Hofer said opponents who repeatedly accused him of seeking a break with the EU were themselves damaging Austria.
“People who permanently talk about Oexit and accuse others of damaging the country with talk of Oexit should take a look at themselves and think about whether they are the ones damaging Austria the most,” he said.
In April 2015, Norbert Hofer won the first round of presidential elections by knocking out centrist candidates from parties that have dominated Austria since WWII.
Alexander Van der Bellen won the second round, but by just 31,000 votes. The Freedom Party then challenged the result which was then annulled due to irregularities.
The election campaign has been long and bitter, with both men trading insults, and with posters of both being defaced.
In the final TV debate on December 1, Norbert Hofer called Alexander Van der Bellen a liar 24 times, and had the insult returned three times, according to the Kurier newspaper.
Austria’s vote coincides with a closely-watched referendum in Italy, where center-left PM Matteo Renzi is staking his political future on a package of political reforms that is being challenged by the populist Five-Star Movement of Beppe Grillo.
Independent Alexander Van der Bellen has won Austria’s presidency after beating the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer by just 31,000 votes among the 4.64 million cast in May 22 election.
The victor accepted there was a “rift” but said: “We are two sides of the same coin. Together we make up Austria.”
Far-right Norbert Hofer had run on a Eurosceptic, anti-immigration platform.
If Norbert Hofer had won, he would have become the first far-right head of state of a EU nation.
In his victory speech, Alexander Van der Bellen, a pro-EU candidate backed by the Greens, said he accepted that many people believed that they were not being heard.
Austria’s newly-elected president said: “We need a different culture of dialogue and a political system which deals with people’s fears and anger.”
Alexander Van der Bellen, 72, said he would “work towards winning the trust of Norbert Hofer’s voters” and try to be “a non-partisan president for all the people in Austria”.
He added: “There’s been a lot of talk about this country’s rifts. But I think you can also interpret the split as a sign that we are two sides of the same coin and each side is as important as the other.”
Austria’s Chancellor Christian Kern said the vote was “worryingly close… and therefore it is of particular importance to us that… no voter feels like they have lost.”
Mainstream European politicians expressed relief at the result. Many nations have seen a surge in nationalist and anti-immigration parties amid the migrant crisis and economic uncertainty.
The Austrian presidency is largely a ceremonial post. But the president can dissolve the lower house of parliament and call elections without the need for permission from the ruling party.
Norbert Hofer said on his Facebook page it was a “sad day” but added: “Please don’t be disheartened. The effort in this election campaign is not wasted, but is an investment for the future.”
Alexander Van der Bellen is the first environmental activist to become Austrian president.
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