Absentee-Ballot Count to Decide Austrian Election

Presidential candidates Norbert Hofer (R) and Alexander Van der Bellen shake hands before a debate in Vienna on Sunday. (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)
Presidential candidates Norbert Hofer (R) and Alexander Van der Bellen shake hands before a debate in Vienna on Sunday. (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

With direct ballots counted but a final result still outstanding, Sunday’s elections for Austria’s presidency were too close to call a winner between a right-wing politician and a challenger whose views stand in stark opposition to his rival’s anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic message.

The direct votes gave right-winger Norbert Hofer 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent for Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green-party politician running as an independent. But final projections that included still-to-be-counted absentee ballots put each at 50 percent with Van der Bellen narrowly ahead.

Those nearly 700,000 absentee ballots will be counted Monday, making them the likely decider by a minuscule portion of votes, considering that 4.48 million people voted directly Sunday.

Candidates backed by the dominant Social Democratic and centrist People’s Party were eliminated in last month’s first round, which means neither party would hold the presidency for the first time since the end of the war. That reflects disillusionment with the status quo, and their approach to the migrant crisis and other issues.

But Sunday’s voting revealed a profound split over which direction the nation should now take, particularly over migration and the future of the European Union.

Van der Bellen’s supporters back liberal refugee policies and a strong, unified EU. Hofer’s Freedom Party wants closed borders and campaigns consistently on strong anti-EU sentiment within the country

Hofer and Van der Bellen drew clear lines between themselves both during the campaign and as they voted Sunday.

Asked as he arrived to cast his ballot what differentiated him from Hofer, Van der Bellen said: “I think I’m pro-European and there are some doubts as far as Mr. Hofer is concerned.”

Hofer, in turn, used his last pre-election gathering to deliver a message with anti-Muslim overtones.

“To those in Austria who go to war for the Islamic State … I say to those people: ‘This is not your home,'” he told a cheering crowd Friday.

On Sunday, 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.”

With the elections reverberating beyond Austria’s borders, such assurances are unlikely to have much weight. A Hofer win would be viewed by European parties of all political stripes as evidence of a further advance of populist Eurosceptic parties at the expense of the establishment.

In Austria, the result could upend decades of business-as-usual politics, with candidates serving notice they are not satisfied with the ceremonial role for which most predecessors have settled.

Van der Bellen says he would not swear in a Freedom Party chancellor, even if that party wins the next elections, scheduled within the next two years. Hofer has threatened to dismiss Austria’s government coalition of the Social Democrats and the People’s Party if it fails to heed his repeated admonitions to do a better job — and is casting himself as the final arbiter of how the government is performing.

A president in Austria can wield significant clout, with the constitution giving him the right to dismiss governments and parliament on his own. Still, both men are likely to tone down their ambitions if elected, even if they occasionally stray from the usual ceremonial functions associated with the office, such as greeting incoming ambassadors, cutting ribbons and giving rubber-stamp approvals of new governments.