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Austrians Vote for President in Test of Far Right’s Strength

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The presidential candidate Norbert Hofer in Pinkafeld, Austria, on Sunday. His Freedom Party contested a runoff election in May that he lost by just 31,000 votes. Credit Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

VIENNA — In a closely watched election, Austrians voted on Sunday for a new president, the climax of a bitter yearlong tussle and the latest test of anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and populist forces rising across the Continent and in the United States.

Norbert Hofer, 45, of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, has made the biggest advances of any populist in Europe, racking up almost 50 percent of the vote when he lost a presidential runoff in May by just 31,000 votes.

His party contested the slim victory of his rival, the former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen, and Austria’s highest court ordered a re-run on procedural grounds. That was then postponed from October to Sunday after absentee ballots were found to have faulty glue.

Despite the drawn-out process, voter interest and emotions have run strong and high. Most observers expect a tight race, possibly decided on Monday only after absentee ballots are counted. Some 6.3 million Austrians ages 16 and over are entitled to vote.

In a race that has featured bitter exchanges on both television and social media, Mr. Hofer made a final video appeal to keep Austria safe for “our children and grandchildren,” while Mr. Van der Bellen urged the voice of reason to prevail over extremes.

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Mr. Hofer, a trained aviation technician with a ready smile and a polished public manner, has indicated that — if elected — he might use a little-noticed power of Austria’s president to dismiss the government, a coalition of the two mainstream parties that have run the country since World War II.

Austrians were shocked last April when neither of those parties, the center-left and the center-right, made the presidential runoff. A new parliamentary election, analysts here say, could then open the way for Mr. Hofer’s far-right party to run the government.

An array of establishment figures have lined up behind Mr. Van der Bellen, but Mr. Hofer has also garnered support from mainstream conservatives in the People’s Party, which declined to throw its weight behind the former Greens leader.

The Social Democrats who head the national government have backed Mr. Van der Bellen and expressed hope that, after Sunday, Austrians can take a break from political campaigning.

The presidential contest has been the most hard-fought since 1986, when Austrians elected Kurt Waldheim, a former United Nations secretary general, despite revelations that he had concealed his service in Hitler’s armed forces close to the sites of Nazi atrocities in the Balkans during World War II.

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Sunday’s election is widely seen as a test of the anti-migrant and particularly anti-Muslim forces that have ridden a populist path to power in Hungary and Poland and have gained strength in France and even in Germany, widely seen as the only major Western country so far resisting the trend away from liberal democracy.

Since the May runoff in Austria, Britain has voted to leave the European Union and voters in the United States have elected Donald J. Trump. In an interview last month, Mr. Hofer made it clear that he thought the American election had bolstered support for his Freedom Party.

Even Mr. Hofer’s opponents seemed resigned in recent days, fearing that Mr. Trump’s victory, in particular, was influencing the outcome here.

Ilona Kamberi, 27, works at the agriculture ministry in Vienna and was part of a program bringing young, politically engaged Austrians to a meeting of politicians, journalists and academics last week in Lech, a ski resort in western Austria.

Ms. Kamberi came to Vienna 13 years ago from Kosovo and is Muslim. At first, she said, she thought people had to have some special quirk to vote for Mr. Hofer. Now, “even some of my friends are going to vote for him.”

In the modern world, “you can win simply by saying anti-Muslim things,” Ms. Kamberi said. And Mr. Trump has had an effect, she added. “These people feel reinforced in their opinion when the superpower does it too.”

Source: NYT > World

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