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Fear and fascination as Austria votes

The outcome of Sunday's presidential vote could completely shake up Austrian and European politics - and the world is watching closely. Alison Langley reports from Vienna.

At a recent pre-election rally, about 500 students gathered near Vienna's Hofburg palace, where the president's office is located, to draw attention to far-right candidate Norbert Hofer's anti-immigration stance. Organizers had hoped for a higher turnout, but those that did show up had a clear message. They carried posters saying: "No Nazis in the Hofburg" and "FPÖ [Freedom Party - the ed.] out; refugees in."

As they continued on their way, they chanted "No to fascism everywhere, no to Hofer! Go Vote!" Among them was Anny, who didn't want to give her last name, carrying an Alexander Van der Bellen campaign poster. She said she would vote for the man who's running as an independent candidate with the Green party's backing: "I think he's the only democratic candidate and the best alternative. He's showing responsibility for the Austrian people. He cares about Europe."

Christoph Goerg paused on his bicycle to watch the student demo and voiced his support for their protests: "We're in a very precarious situation. Voting in a President Hofer would be the first step toward a fascist state."

The battle lines have been drawn and as a retired university professor in economics, Van der Bellen knows how to didactically argue points: slowly, methodically and with logic.

But the former Green party leader has had a tough time pitting reason against Hofer and his Freedom Party's anti-Islam and Euroskeptic messages.

Discontented electorate

If Hofer wins on Sunday, Austria will be the first western European country to elect a far-right, populist head of state. Hofer's campaign has been openly anti-immigration, anti-EU and anti-gay marriage - and he's the front-runner after winning around 35 percent of the vote in the first round last month, against roughly 22 percent for Van der Bellen. Interestingly, the pollsters have gone quiet this time, after failing to predict Hofer's win.

protesters holding up posters Copyright: Alison Langley

A clear message - but will it work?

The few polls that have been published show the two running neck-and-neck, with a large group of voters still undecided because they see both candidates as too polarizing.

"I won't vote for the far right out of principle and the Greens are too extreme for me," one woman told DW, exemplifying the mood on the streets of Vienna.

Hofer's stunning victory in the first round was seen as a resounding indictment of the way the traditional parties have handled the county's most pressing problems such as rising unemployment, low education standards, and the refugee crisis.

As a result of his flip-flopping over the refugee issue, Werner Faymann was forced to resign as chancellor and Christian Kern, the new head of government, has promised change: "If we can't turn around this trend, this [coalition] will disappear from the picture. And rightly so."

Worried about Austria

Hofer's Freedom Party has aligned itself closely with Marine Le Pen's Front National and Geert Wilder's Party for Freedom as well as other populist parties, like Germany's Alternative for Deutschland and those in Finland and Denmark. Around the world - from the Philippines to the US - voters are increasingly rejecting the entrenched political establishment and turning to populist messages as a solution to complex problems.

"We should be worried about Austria, but also about Europe and the world," Oliver Rathkolb, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Vienna, told DW.

To counter that threat, European political heavyweights like European Parliament President Martin Schulz and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have thrown their support behind Van der Bellen, who is popular with urban and highly educated voters.

In contrast, Hofer appeals to voters in the countryside, especially young men. "You need the schickeria - the in-crowd. The real citizens are for me," Hofer told Van der Bellen during a recent contentious TV debate.

two men sitting at a table copyright: Getty Images/AFP/H. Punz

A recent TV debate between Van der Bellen (left) and Hofer turned into an ugly political brawl further alienating undecided voters

Power of the presidency

Although the president has a largely ceremonial role in Austria, Hofer has already promised that he would play an active role in politics and said he would dissolve any government that in his view "damages" the country, as he believes the current coalition has done in letting in so many refugees. The refugees, he argues, merely take advantage of taxpayers' money and perpetrate more crimes.

Rathkolb says that Hofer's approach is hitting home among voters. "The point is, they don't listen to his aggressive messages, they see him as 'one of us.'"

In response, Van der Bellen has called Hofer "authoritarian" and said that as president he would not approve a Freedom Party government.

Austria and the EU

Sunday's vote could not only decide on the country's political direction - the two candidates also have starkly differing views of Austria's role in Europe.

Austria was briefly sanctioned by the EU in 2000 when the Freedom Party joined in a coalition with the center-right People's Party. The coalition ended in disaster, and taxpayers are in the midst of a 10-billion-euro bailout of a bank that had essentially been a honey pot for former Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider.

Van der Bellen has warned that as a small country, Austria needs a strong European Union to make an impact in an increasingly globalized economy, while Hofer, who voted against Austria joining the bloc in the first place, is staunchly anti-EU.

As far as elections go, this one is a real cliffhanger. Peter Hajek, an opinion researcher, points to the political upheaval that shook the country following the first vote: Chancellor Faymann's resignation and Christian Kern's subsequent appointment as the new leader. These factors, Hajek told DW, could sway the outcome.

"Hofer holds all the trumps in his hands, but that doesn't mean he will win."

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