Austrian voters are casting their ballots in a presidential election rerun that pits a far-right leader, Norbert Hofer, against mainstream politician Alexander Van der Bellen. Austrians returned to the polls on Sunday because a first run-off, in May, was annulled due to electoral irregularities and ballot count breaches. Hofer, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), lost narrowly — by just 31,000 votes — to Van der Bellen in the annulled round. Recent opinion polls suggest that the new vote is too close to call.
Hofer has floated the idea of holding a referendum on Austria’s exit from the European Union (EU), modeled after a similar vote in Britain. Van der Bellen has warned against such a prospect. “Let us not play with this fire. Let us not play with Oexit,” Van der Bellen said in a last televised debate, using a word made up of Austria’s name in German, Oesterreich, and the word “exit.” He argued that the potential referendum could put hundreds of jobs at risk in the Central European country.
The FPO leader is also highly critical of his country’s policies in accepting large numbers of refugees, while Van der Bellen, who has been revealed to be a child of refugees himself, has accused his opponent of holding authoritarian views. Austria has been without a president since July 8, when Heinz Fischer stepped down. The president traditionally plays a largely ceremonial role in Austria but enjoys the power to fire the cabinet.
The first projections are expected to be released shortly after polling stations close at 5 p.m. (1600 GMT). The outcome of the polls would be important for the EU, which is struggling with an unprecedented influx of refugees fleeing conflict-ridden zones in Africa and the Middle East, particularly Syria. Austria took in about 90,000 asylum seekers last year, over one percent of its population.