VIENNA – Austria holds presidential elections on Sunday in a contest pitting a left-leaning contender against a right-winger supported by a populist anti-immigration party. Beyond the contest for the largely ceremonial office, the vote is being watched in other EU countries as a barometer of how well their populist candidates will do in upcoming elections. A look at the candidates and the issues:
Norbert Hofer and Alexander Van der Bellen, two candidates with strongly different views.
Since announcing his candidacy last year, Hofer has emerged as a major figure of his right-wing populist Freedom Party. The 45-year old engineer rose through party ranks and launched his bid for the presidency from his post as one of three parliamentary presidents. A smooth talker with a ready smile, Hofer changes the style, tone and contents of his message at will — from moderate, when addressing undecided voters to polemical with Freedom Party supporters that play to their euroskeptic and anti-migrant sentiments.
Van der Bellen is running as an independent but is supported by the Green Party, where he held senior positions until 2008. The rumpled-looking former economics professor emigrated from Estonia with his parents as a child. He is strongly supportive of the European Union, advocates liberal migrant policies and often sounds the alarm against what he sees as Europe's rightward drift toward populism and nationalism.
WHAT ARE THE ISSUES?
The main issue is the political direction of Austria, and in some ways, the European Union. While the president's functions are mostly ceremonial, a win by Hofer will be seen as a lurch to the right for the country, a development that would be welcomed by other populist euroskeptic politicians within the EU either in power or seeking it.
Victory by Van der Bellen would hearten pro-EU and anti-nationalist leaders alarmed by the growing strength of the right before key national elections next year in France and the Netherlands.
WHY THIS SUNDAY?
The longest in Austrian history, the race for the post was supposed to be over in May, when Van der Bellen defeated Hofer by a margin of less than 1 percentage point.
But the Freedom Party contested the result, claiming widespread irregularities and on July 1, Constitutional Court ruled that they had to be re-held. They were then rescheduled for October, only to be pushed back to Dec. 4 after the discovery that the adhesive on some absentee ballots was faulty, meaning they wouldn't seal.
WHO CAN VOTE, WHEN — AND WHEN WILL THE WINNER BE KNOWN?
About 6.4 million Austrian citizens — all those 16 or over — can vote in thousands of polling stations across the country. Most are open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (0700-1600GMT) with some closing earlier.
Early results issued by the Interior Ministry will be available about one hour after polls close. Near-final results should be known by 10 p.m. (2100 GMT).
But if the race is as close as it was in May, the contest won't be decided until absentee ballots are also counted and an official winner is announced on Monday or Tuesday.