Vienna-Austrians cast their ballots on Sunday to elect a new president in polls that are closely followed by Europe amid concerns that right-winger Norbert Hofer would defeat Alexander Van der Bellen, a Greens politician running as an independent.
Austria’s 6.4 million eligible voters were invited to polling stations to choose a successor to incumbent President Heinz Fischer, 77, who could not run again after two terms in office.
Hofer, 45, said he “will become a president” when direct votes gave him a higher percentage than the other candidate.
If he wins, the aeronautical engineer turned politician, who is also deputy parliament speaker since 2013, would become the first European far-rightist head of state.
The presidents of the European Commission and the European Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, have both expressed concern over a Hofer victory.
Observers confirm that Hofer has the most chances to win the elections.
Candidates backed by the long-dominant Social Democratic and centrist People’s Party were eliminated in last month’s first round, which means neither party would hold the presidency for the first time since the end of the war.
Amid the height of the refugee crisis that brought 90,000 asylum seekers to Austria in 2015, meaning more than one percent of the population, Hofer made sure not to make anti-migrant statements.
He focused in his speech on job employment and improving the livelihoods of Austrians. He stressed that he rejects seeing the country outside the European Union if Turkey joined it.
But Hofer, who is the advisor of Freedom Party (FPO leader) Heinz-Christian Strache, said he intends to become a “real president” unlike the honorary role played by previous Austrian heads of state.
In Austria, the president traditionally plays a largely ceremonial role but swears in the chancellor and can dismiss the cabinet.
The new president, who will be elected for a six-year tenure, will officially come to office on July 8.