European heads of state are nervously eyeing Austria’s presidential election Sunday because it could bring to power the first far-right head of state in the European Union.
Far-right Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer has vowed to keep migrants out of Austria and build a fence along the country’s border after more than 90,000 refugees entered Austria last year, fleeing conflicts and repressive states including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hofer, 45, will face off against Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen at the polls Sunday. Hofer won the election’s first round in April with 35 percent support but not by a wide enough of a margin to avoid a second round runoff. The election showed the dissatisfaction Austrian voters feel with mainstream parties. Both the Social Democrats and the People’s Party, whose members have held the presidential post for decades, failed badly in the first round.
While the president serves a largely ceremonial role in Austria, the presidency comes with the power to swear in chancellors and sack governments. Hofer, a former aeronautical engineer, has tried to assure voters they have nothing to be afraid of if he is elected. He has, however, threatened to sack the current government if it cannot control immigration. The Freedom Party has also called for Muslim institutions to be monitored and said it would not permit same-sex couples to marry or adopt children.
“I don’t need anyone from Europe. I need the Austrians,” Hofer said in a debate against Van der Bellen when asked if his support was coming from other far-right parties including France’s National Front and the Dutch Freedom Party.
Van der Bellen, 72, an economics professor, has presented himself as a pro-European candidate. The Sunday debate between the two candidates devolved quickly into offensive name-calling.
Hofer has risen in the polls using rhetoric similar to that of U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Hofer’s promise to put “Austria First” echoes Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign motto. Hofer has cast himself as a populist against the entrenched political establishment.