Austria’s political future is on a knife-edge, with the candidate bidding to be the European Union’s first far-right president holding a wafer-thin lead over his rival. According to the public broadcaster ORF, Norbert Hofer of the rightwing populist Freedom party (FPÖ) was neck and neck on 50% with his rival Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green party leader who is running as an independent. Postal ballots, accounting for 14% of eligible voters and expected to favour the left-leaning candidate, are being tallied on Monday, and a full result is not expected until Monday afternoon. Fifty per cent and one vote would suffice to hand the presidency to one of the two candidates. Data from Austria’s interior ministry, which does not take into account the projected postal vote, put Hofer on 51.9% and Van der Bellen on 48.1%.
Even though the Austrian presidency is mainly a ceremonial role, a vote of around 50% for the far-right politician Hofer already represents a political earthquake in a country in which two centrist parties have dominated the landscape since 1945, and will be celebrated as a triumph by xenophobic parties across the continent.
Initial exit poll results had shown a slender lead for Hofer. However, the economist academic Van der Bellen performed strongly in cities across the country, gaining 62% of the vote in Graz, 61% in Vienna and 56% in Salzburg. Voter turnout was 71.8%, up on the first round of the presidential election in April.
Hofer arrived at the FPÖ party to enthusiastic chants of ‘Norbert! Norbert!’ as the party chief Heinz-Christian Strache paid tribute to his achievement. “The entire encrusted, failed system has linked arms with Norbert,” he said. “Half of Austrians chose to take Norbert’s path … it’s a new awakening! Today history has been made.”