Divided Austria votes in rerun of presidential contest

Alexander Van der Bellen faces off anew with Norbert Hofer who could become the EU’s first far-right head of state.

Voters in Austria head to the polls to pick a new president, in a replay of the closely contested May runoff between a left-leaning Green Party contender and his far-right anti-immigrant rival.

Sunday’s election pits anew Alexander Van der Bellen, who narrowly won in May, against 45-year-old Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party, who could become the first elected far-right leader in the European Union. 

The voting provides Hofer a second chance to win Austria’s top job after he lost to Van der Bellen by a margin of only 0.6 percent.

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Hofer’s Freedom Party successfully challenged the vote in the Constitutional Court by bringing evidence that ballots were counted without proper oversight in many towns.

The court ordered a repeat election, which was planned to go ahead in October, but had to be pushed back to December.

Hofer, one of the deputy presidents of Austria’s parliament, has won support from half of the voters by criticising the government for allowing 90,000 refugees and migrants to enter the country last year.

The former aviation engineer has also chided German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her welcoming stance in the face of the wave of arrivals.

Hofer said Austrian taxpayers were footing Germany’s bill, as many of these refugees and migrants ended up in his country.

In May, Van der Bellen (left) defeated Hofer by a margin of 0.6 percent during their presidential runoff [Reuters]
In May, Van der Bellen (left) defeated Hofer by a margin of 0.6 percent during their presidential runoff [Reuters]

Ernst Wohlfahrt, a Hofer supporter, told Al Jazeera the Freedom Party’s message that Austria has “lost its way” proved “potent with a working class disillusioned with migration and Europe’s economic outlook”.

“The archicture of the Austro-Hungarian empire a century ago reminds people of what used to be, and the Hofer argument would seek a return to those days of glory,” Wohlfahrt said. 

Van der Bellen, the Green Party’s candidate, had warned that Hofer’s recent soft EU stance only masks his wish to destroy the bloc, in line with like-minded populist movements in France and Germany.

On the migration issue, Van der Bellen stands by the many Austrians who have spontaneously formed grassroots projects to help arriving refugees and migrants.

“Do we want to see Austria as a friendly, open, bright country?” the economic scholar said in a speech. “Or do we want to see it as a country that is threatened by conspiracies, where fears take over, where everything is terrible?” he said, challenging the Freedom Party’s world view.

‘Destruction of EU’

Al Jazeera’s Laurence Lee, reporting from Vienna, said many are voting for Van der Bellen, “simply because he isn’t Hofer”. 

Refugees stranded in Austria desperate to reach Germany

Although polls predict another neck-to-neck result on Sunday, Van der Bellen’s position on refugees and migrants is becoming increasingly isolated.

Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has been successful with his strategy of closing down the Balkan migration route, pushing for restrictive immigration policies, and demanding the end of Turkey’s accession talks with the EU.

The Social Democrats, who form the government coalition with Kurz’s centre-right People’s Party, have also gone along with Austria’s immigration about-turn, and have reluctantly supported a cut-off limit for the number of asylum seekers that can enter each year.

A vocal wing in the Social Democratic party has been mulling cooperation with Hofer’s Freedom Party after the next parliamentary election, which is due in 2018 at the latest.

The right-wing Freedom Party has led the polls for more than a year, and currently enjoys the support of 35 percent of voters, according to the latest survey published by the Austrian daily, Oesterreich, in early November.

“Nothing and no one will stop us,” Hofer said at an election rally.

Protesters march against Hofer in Vienna [AP]
Protesters march against Hofer in Vienna [AP]
Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies