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Austria Freedom Party's Hofer Leads in Tight Race for Presidency

Austria Freedom Party's Hofer Leads in Tight Race for Presidency
Austrian far right Freedom Party (FPOe) presidential candidate Norbert Hofer at a a final election rally in Vienna. (Reuters)

Sunday, 22 May 2016 01:14 PM

Norbert Hofer, the candidate of Austria’s populist Freedom Party, is leading in the race to become the nation’s next president with an estimated 51.9 percent of the vote, according to the first prediction based on early results published by public broadcaster ORF.

Green Party-backed Alexander Van der Bellen was predicted to get 48 percent of the vote after Sunday’s runoff election, with most of the votes counted. The projection has an error margin of 2 percent, according to pollster SORA.

The presidential runoff followed four weeks of political upheaval caused when the European Union-skeptical, anti-immigration Freedom Party came out ahead in an initial round, triggering a government crisis as neither of the governing parties could secure enough support to progress to the runoff.

The run-off polarized Austria, with turnout higher than in the first round amid sunny weather and amid 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 his 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 Austrian public broadcaster ORF.

European Allies

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 has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years with a mix of European Union skepticism and nationalist rhetoric. Hofer’s 35 percent of the vote last month was more than double the support his party’s candidate received five years ago. The ruling coalition’s candidates were humiliated in the presidential vote, and their defeat led to Social Democrat Werner Faymann’s resignation as chancellor last week.

“Every single one of you will feel it when I’m president,” Hofer told supporters at his campaign’s final rally in Vienna on Friday. “Are you ready to join me on the way to the Hofburg?,” he asked to cheers of his supporters, referring to the former Imperial residence in Vienna that now houses the president’s office.

Immigrant Impact

The group has stoked Austrian concerns that a new wave of immigrants could overwhelm faltering education and medical systems while exacerbating unemployment and taking already-scarce affordable housing. In doing so, it has tapped into a pool of disenchanted voters who are mostly male, young, white and working-class.

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.

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’d vote against joining the bloc if that decision was due now, Hofer has said.


 


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Norbert Hofer, the candidate of Austria's populist Freedom Party, is leading in the race to become the nation's next president with an estimated 51.9 percent of the vote, according to the first prediction based on early results published by public broadcaster ORF.Green...
eric hofer, freedom, party, winning, vote, austria
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2016-14-22
Sunday, 22 May 2016 01:14 PM
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