One month ago, pro-European voices in Austria, and all of Europe, were suddenly muted when in the first round of the Austrian presidential election, Norbert Hofer head of Austria Freedom Party (FPO), described as a "Euroskeptic, right-wing, anti-immigrant party" crushed his opposition buoyed by a migration crisis that has heightened fears about employment and security across the continent, and gathered a whopping 35% of the vote leaving the other five legacy candidates far behind.
Austrian far right Freedom Party (FPOe) presidential candidate Norbert
Hofer during the final election rally in Vienna, Austria, April 22, 2016
Today, Austria holds the decisive run-off round between Norbert Hofer and former Greens leader Alexander van der Bellen, which according to preliminary opinions polls was set to be a close vote, although probably not that close.
Presidential candidate Norbert Hofer prepares to cast his ballot at the
polling station in his hometown Pinkafeld, Austria, May 22, 2016
According to Reuters, a far-right victory would resonate across the 28-member EU, where migration driven by conflict and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere has become a major political issue. Support for groups like the Euroskeptic, anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) has been rising in various countries, whether they have taken in many migrants in the recent influx, like Germany and Sweden, or not, like France and Britain.
Most are still far from achieving majority support. The FPO has been in government before, serving as a coalition partner in the early 2000s when it was led by the late Joerg Haider. But whoever wins the presidential election, it is likely to be a new high-water mark for Austria's and Europe's far right, all the more significant for being in a prosperous country with comparatively low, albeit rising, unemployment.
In his last pre-election gathering, Hofer delivered another message with anti-Muslim overtones. "To those in Austria who go to war for the Islamic State or rape women - I say to those people: 'This is not your home,'" he told a cheering crowd.
Later, Hofer sought to soothe international fears that he is a radical far-righter. The Austria Press Agency cited him as telling foreign reporters Sunday that he is "really OK," and "not a dangerous person."
Supporters of presidential candidate Norbert Hofer attend his final
election rally in Vienna, Austria, May 20, 2016
If Hofer wins, mainstream parties will also come under scrutiny for not recommending an anti-FPO vote. Many feel that would only have bolstered the FPO's argument that it is taking on Austria's deeply entrenched political establishment. As Reuters adds, "a far-right victory would resonate across the 28-member EU, where migration driven by conflict and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere has become a major political issue."
It would also be a huge boost to anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic movements in the other two key nations, Germany, whose AfD is now the third most popular party, and France, where the leader of the local National Front, Marine Le Pen, is the frontrunner for the French 2017 presidential election.
A victory for the Freedom Party in Austria would be mostly symbolic: the president traditionally plays a largely ceremonial role but swears in the chancellor and can dismiss the cabinet. "I have to work for one or two years and then everybody will see that I am OK, I am not a dangerous person," Hofer, 45, told reporters after voting in his eastern hometown of Pinkafeld.
Hofer, deputy leader of the FPO, is known as the gentler face of the party but has only recently become a household name.
Austria took in 90,000 asylum seekers last year, more than 1 percent of its population, many of them shortly after it and neighbouring Germany opened their borders last autumn to a wave of migrants including refugees from Syria's civil war. The government has since clamped down on immigration and asylum, but that failed to slow rising support for the FPO, which was already capitalising on widespread frustration with Austria's two traditional parties of government.
While a Gallup poll for the Oesterreich newspaper last weekend found Hofer ahead by a 53-47 margin based on 600 people surveyed, the question is what do exit polls say. As Reuters reports, a projection will be published when the last polling stations close at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT), and the result is due to be announced after 7 p.m. A high number of postal ballots has raised the prospect of the result being unclear until Monday.
And while we wait, here is the first exit election estimate, which according to Austria's ORF, has Hofer at 50.1% 49.9% for his rival from van der Bellen.
Some more reports.
First estimate have presidential elections #Austria too close to call. Hofer, right-wing, at 50,2% ; VdB, green, at 48,2. 2% margin error.— VoxEurop (@VoxEurop) May 22, 2016
For the official rolling results, check back in a few hours, meanwhile here is a real time election map from the Austrian government.