Austria election pits far right against veteran liberal

Right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) presidential candidate Norbert Hofer speaks during his final election campaign rally in Vienna, Austria, 02 December 2016. Image copyright EPA
Image caption If Mr Hofer wins, he would be the first far-right head of state in the EU

The two candidates in the re-run of Austria's presidential election, Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party and the former Green politician Alexander Van der Bellen, have held their final campaign events before the vote on Sunday.

If Mr Hofer wins, he would be the first far-right head of state in the EU.

Traditionally, the far-right Freedom Party ends its election campaigns with a big rally at the Viktor-Adler market in the 10th district of Vienna, a working-class area. There's beer, and a band playing Austrian-style pop and country music.

But not this time.

This time it was all about looking presidential.

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Media captionBethany Bell explains why Austria is facing a Christmas presidential election

Norbert Hofer, who has tended to present himself as the smooth, soft face of the Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Freedom Party, held his final campaign appearance in the marble halls of the Vienna Stock Exchange.

Standing at a podium, emblazoned with the slogan, "Your Homeland Needs You Now", he gave a speech billed as the state of the nation.

Vying to lead Austria

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Media captionWhat voters want from Norbert Hofer and Alexander Van der Bellen

Norbert Hofer

  • Age: 45
  • Background: Aeronautical engineer
  • Politics: Far-right Freedom Party
  • On Trump: "I'm no Trump fan, but I do have high hopes of improved relations with Russia."
  • On Germany's decision to open its doors to refugees: "I say we're not managing. It was a major mistake that has inflicted massive costs on the entire EU, as well as Austria and taxpayers."

Alexander Van der Bellen

  • Age: 72
  • Background: Economics professor
  • Politics: Former Green Party leader
  • On Trump: "His campaign style, the sexist attacks were unacceptable. As regards content he has raised concerns - let's give him several months"
  • On immigration: "I want a liberal, cosmopolitan Austria. What I do object to is lifting the old borders."

Presidential elections are normally quiet affairs in Austria - but this long and turbulent campaign has broken the mould.

It began with a major upset in April, when the two main centre-left and -right parties, the Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party, were knocked out of the race, for the first time since 1945.

That left the two outsiders, Norbert Hofer from the far right and Alexander Van der Bellen, a liberal, pro-European former Green politician.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Former Green politician Alexander Van der Bellen is the favoured candidate among most of Europe's elites

At the run-off in May, Mr Van der Bellen won narrowly, by less than 1%.

But then the result was overturned by the High Court because of issues with the way postal votes were counted. A re-run planned for October had to be postponed because of problems with the glue on postal votes.

Mr Van der Bellen, who has been trying to widen his appeal, held his final rally at a party venue in Vienna's 10th district - the traditional stronghold of the Freedom Party.

The mayor of Kaunertal, the small village in Tyrol where Mr Van der Bellen came to live as a child with his Russian and Estonian parents who were refugees from the Soviet Union, addressed the cheering crowd.

"Look what can become of a refugee child," the mayor, Josef Raich, said.

Analysts say the result for Sunday's vote is too close to call.

If Mr Hofer wins, it will be seen as a sign that European rightwing populism is alive and well after Brexit and the victory of Donald Trump.

If Mr Van der Bellen wins, there is likely to be a sigh of relief from Europe's elites.

How far right is Hofer?

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Media captionThe BBC goes on the campaign trail with Norbert Hofer
  • Norbert Hofer is a member of a pan-German nationalist fraternity called Marko-Germania
  • Some of his close colleagues are from an extremist background. One is Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache
  • The Freedom Party was founded in 1955 by a former general in the Nazi SS
  • The cornflower that party members wear was used by pan-German nationalists in the 19th Century but also as a secret symbol by the Nazis
  • Mr Hofer wants to reopen debate over self-determination in South Tyrol, annexed by Italy in 1919

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