Austria presidential election re-run 'too close to call'

TV debate between left-leaning Alexander Van der Bellen (L) and far-right leader Norbert Hofer (R), 1 Dec 16 Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Austrian presidential rivals: left-leaning Alexander Van der Bellen (L) versus far-right leader Norbert Hofer (R)

Austrians are voting in a re-run of a presidential election which pits far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer against former Green Party head Alexander Van der Bellen.

The vote last May was narrowly won by Mr Van der Bellen, but the result was overturned by Austria's highest court because of irregularities in the count.

If Mr 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 role is largely ceremonial, 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 next year in which anti-mainstream and anti-immigration parties are gaining ground.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front in France, and the Dutch anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders have both tweeted their support for Mr Hofer.

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

The direction which Austria will take with regard to the EU is also closely watched.

Mr 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. Mr Van der Bellen has told Austrians it is proof that Mr Hofer is in favour of "Oexit" (a reference to Austria's name in German, Oesterreich).

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Mr Van der Bellen, seen here after casting his vote in Vienna, won narrowly in May

But at a party meeting on Friday, Mr 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," Hofer said.

In April last year, Mr Hofer won the first round of presidential elections by knocking out centrist candidates from parties that have dominated Austria since WW2.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The weather was clear and crisp as Norbert Hofer arrived to vote in Pinkafeld

Mr 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 Thursday, Mr Hofer called Mr 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 centre-left Prime Minister 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.

Vying to lead Austria

Alexander Van der Bellen

Image copyright AFP
  • 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"

Norbert Hofer

Image copyright EPA
  • 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."

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