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Austria Polarized as Populists Tie With Greens for Presidency

Sunday, 22 May 2016 05:45 PM

(Bloomberg) -- Austria’s political divisions were laid bare as the anti-immigration Freedom Party and a Green Party-backed candidate were tied after Sunday’s runoff election to become the country’s next president.

The outcome will now be decided by the count of absentee ballots on Monday after the Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, failed to press home his first-round advantage to secure a clear victory amid a rally in support for his Green opponent, Alexander Van der Bellen.

Hofer led with 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent for Van der Bellen after all regular ballots cast on Sunday were counted, a margin of victory that both candidates acknowledged was too slender to call the result. Once projections for as many as 900,000 absentee ballots are taken into account -- or about 14 percent of the total electorate -- the result is just too close to call, according to public broadcaster ORF.

“Neither of us wished for this, we both wanted to sleep well,” Hofer told ORF in an interview. “I’ve never experienced an election night like this.” The final result is due some time after 5 p.m. in Vienna Monday, according to ORF.

Sunday’s election followed four weeks of political upheaval triggered when Hofer, a veteran official of the European Union-skeptic Freedom Party, came out ahead in the initial round April 24. A government crisis ensued since neither of the governing parties could secure enough support to progress to the next round, leading to the resignation of Chancellor Werner Faymann and his replacement by fellow Social Democrat Christian Kern.

Turnout Rises

The run-off polarized Austria, with most Austrians saying the result amounts to a fundamental decision about the country’s future political direction. Turnout rose to 72 percent amid sunny weather and suggestions that voters flocked to support Van der Bellen to stop the Freedom Party gaining the country’s highest office. Hofer, 45, has pledged to use the authority of a popular mandate to weigh into the nation’s politics, breaking with decades of Austrian presidents who agreed to play a largely ceremonial role.

“What we’ve seen is that the entire encrusted political system stood up against Hofer, but 50 percent of the Austrians followed Norbert Hofer’s way,” Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said in an interview with ORF.

Regional results underlined the split between rural and urban voters. Van der Bellen, 72, won 61 percent of the vote in Vienna and had a majority in all but one capital of the eight other provinces, including Salzburg, Innsbruck and Graz. Hofer took most rural areas and two working-class districts of Vienna.

Absentee Votes

About 900,000 voters were issued voting cards ahead of the election, allowing them to vote either by mail or in a voting station other than their regular one. Both the mailed ballots and the ballots cast away from home will be counted on Monday. It’s not clear how many of those cards were used, nor how they will stack up.

In the first round, Hofer’s result dropped more than 1 point when the absentee ballots were included, while Van der Bellen gained a point.

“Tomorrow is going to be a long day,” Van der Bellen told ORF.

Victory for Hofer would mark a breakthrough for right-wing populists across Europe. His party is allied with France’s National Front, whose Marine Le Pen failed to win office in regional elections earlier this year. The Dutch anti-Islam Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders and the Alternative for Germany party are also allies. All three are polling strongly ahead of national elections in France, the Netherlands and Germany next year.

Austria’s Freedom Party, founded in 1956 by a former Nazi SS officer, has capitalized on popular dissatisfaction by promising to make more assertive use of the presidential powers assigned by the constitution. Hofer says he may dismiss governments that don’t heed his advice on immigration or taxes and call fresh elections.

Sitting In

He’s promised to reject laws like that for a planned free-trade agreement between the EU and the U.S. and said he would join government representatives at EU meetings in Brussels. While he wouldn’t push for Austria to leave the EU, he’s said he’d vote against joining the bloc if that decision was due now.

The Freedom Party has tapped into a pool of disenchanted voters by stoking concerns that a new wave of immigrants could overwhelm faltering education and medical systems while exacerbating unemployment and taking already-scarce affordable housing.

“Whoever wins will have to unite Austria,” Hofer told ORF.

--With assistance from Jonathan Tirone To contact the reporters on this story: Boris Groendahl in Vienna at bgroendahl@bloomberg.net, Alexander Weber in Vienna at aweber45@bloomberg.net. To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alan Crawford at acrawford6@bloomberg.net, Patrick Henry at phenry8@bloomberg.net.

©2016 Bloomberg L.P.

© Copyright 2017 Bloomberg News. All rights reserved.

 
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