Vienna (AFP) – Austria’s long and ugly presidential campaign drew to a close Saturday, with the far-right aiming to emulate Donald Trump and Brexit campaigners by dealing a hammer-blow to Vienna’s centrist establishment.
A victory on Sunday for Norbert Hofer from the anti-immigration and EU-critical Freedom Party (FPOe) would make him Europe’s first far-right elected president since World War II.
The presidency is largely ceremonial but it would be another triumph for populist politics a month after Donald Trump’s US election victory and barely five months since the British chose to leave the European Union.
The election comes on the same day as a high-stakes referendum in Italy and ahead of elections next year in France, Germany and the Netherlands where anti-mainstream forces are forecast to do well too.
“That a far-right candidate for a party founded partly by Nazis and with a history of anti-Semitism could be so close to power at the heart of Europe is self-evidently troubling,” a Financial Times editorial said this week.
“But it should be a wake-up call to mainstream politicians rather than a cause for despair.”
One voter, Helwig Leibinger, told AFP at Hofer’s final rally in Vienna on Friday that “we hope that Hofer can ensure that our borders remain closed, that we have controls, that we have security.
“We want a commander-in-chief of the armed forces who can give the right orders,” he said.
– Knife-edge –
Polls suggest that gun enthusiast and former aircraft engineer Hofer, 45, and independent Alexander Van der Bellen, 72, a former head of the Greens and economics professor, are neck and neck.
Both released slick Facebook videos with piano accompaniments on Saturday issuing final appeals to come out and vote.
Van der Bellen said people should be guided by “reason not extremes” while Hofer urged voters to ensure a “safe Austria” for their “children and grandchildren”.
Hofer won a first round in April, sensationally knocking out candidates from the centre-right and centre-left that have dominated national politics since World War II.
Van der Bellen won a May runoff by just 31,000 votes but the FPOe had the result annulled due to irregularities. This time there are 20 percent fewer postal votes, which might benefit Hofer.
The campaign, which has lasted 11 months in all, has been bitter. A final TV debate on Thursday saw Hofer call Van der Bellen a liar 24 times, vice versa three times, the Kurier daily calculated.
Hofer posters have been defaced with Hitler moustaches, Van der Bellen’s with dog excrement. Hofer has called his challenger a “communist” and a “fascist green dictator”, while Van der Bellen has labelled Hofer a “demagogue”.
The Die Presse daily dubbed the final debate a “key scene in the screenplay of the slow decline of Austria’s political culture”. The Oesterreich tabloid’s front page headline on Saturday was “Hass-Wahl” (“Election of Hate”).
– Government collapse? –
Populist groups across Europe, right and left, have like Trump stoked a growing sense of unease about globalisation, multiculturalism, growing inequality and austerity cuts.
Voters are “flocking to populist movements and the easy answers that are offered by those parties,” political analyst Thomas Hofer (no relation) told AFP.
What a Hofer victory might mean is unclear. He says he wants more referendums, including on continued EU membership if Turkey joins or if the bloc becomes more centralised.
Nigel Farage, who spearheaded the “Brexit” campaign, predicted on Fox News Friday that Hofer “will be calling for Austria to have a referendum” on EU membership, the Washington Examiner reported.
This forced the FPOe to put out a statement Saturday saying that Farage “is clearly not aware” of Hofer’s policies.
But hitherto unused presidential powers could, in theory, allow Hofer to fire centre-left Chancellor Christian Kern’s government.
More realistically his victory might prompt Kern and the centre-right to pull the plug on their unhappy coalition and call early elections. Leading the polls right now is the FPOe.