Austrian voters look set to shake the foundations of the centrist coalition government in a presidential election on Sunday and may give yet another boost to the anti-Islam Freedom Party as Europe’s migrant crisis rumbles on. The president plays a largely ceremonial role from offices in the imperial Hofburg palace. But he or she is head of state, swears in the chancellor, has the authority to dismiss the cabinet and is commander in chief of the military. Members of the centre-left Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party have filled the job since it was first put to a popular vote in 1951. The two parties have ruled the nation of 8.7 million in tandem for most of the postwar era. But Austrians are fed up with political cockfighting, including bickering between Social Democrat Chancellor Werner Faymann and conservative Vice-Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, and appear to be looking elsewhere for their new head of state.
The migrant crisis, which has seen around 100,000 asylum seekers arrive in Austria since last summer, has dominated the campaign from which two front-runners have emerged.
Alexander van der Bellen, a 72-year-old Greens Party veteran, has criticised the government for being too harsh in its treatment of asylum applicants, while right-wing Freedom Party (FPO) candidate Norbert Hofer says it has been too soft.
Hofer got 24 percent support in a recent poll by market researcher OGM, while van der Bellen got 25 percent as his lead over his rival shrinks. If neither win a majority in the first round on April 24, a run-off vote will be held.