Austria is few steps near becoming the first European Union country to elect a far-right head of state, which came as the result of rising concerns in regard of living standards and Europe’s migrant crisis. The anti-Islam and Eurosceptic Freedom Party (FPO) won more than a third of the vote in the first round of presidential elections on April 24.
The second round is on Sunday, opposing FPO candidate Norbert Hofer against independent Alexander van der Bellen, a former Greens party leader. Both Hofer and Bellen appeared after crushing the governing Social Democrats (SPO) and their conservative coalition partners, causing a party revolt that toppled SPO Chancellor Werner Faymann last week.
Apart from swearing in the chancellor, Austria’s president usually plays mostly a ceremonial role with the authority to dismiss the cabinet and is commander in chief of the military.
A Gallup poll for the Oesterreich newspaper last weekend found Hofer ahead by a 53-47 margin based on 600 people surveyed, noting the two have exchanged bitter attacks in the run-up to the decisive vote that comes amid right-wing gains across Europe.
Hofer, 45, has called van der Bellen a “fascist Green dictator” for saying as president he would block any government led by anti-Europe FPO boss Heinz-Christian Strache. Chain-smoking economics professor van der Bellen, 72, says Hofer is just itching for the chance to dismiss the cabinet and usher in a right-wing government.
Hofer, a former aviation engineer, is a soft-spoken but determined personality who worked his way out of the wheelchair to which he had to use after a paragliding accident in 2003.
The gun fan says his most important political project is to secure borders. Having voted in 1994 against joining the EU, he hews to Strache’s view of Europe as a collection of fatherlands.
He has said he would not swear in a female minister wearing a headscarf, which he sees as a symbol for the oppression of women. “I tell it like it is,” he is fond of saying.