VIENNA — Austrians returned to the polls on Sunday in a bitterly fought marathon election, which could propel the European Union’s first far-right president to power and boost the anti-establishment tide sweeping many countries. Norbert Hofer of the hardline Freedom Party (FPOe) hopes to emerge victorious after he narrowly lost to his Greens-backed rival Alexander Van der Bellen in a first run-off in May, which was annulled over ballot count breaches. Boosted by Brexit and Donald Trump’s shock U.S. election win, smooth-tongued gun enthusiast Hofer has vowed to “get rid of the dusty establishment,” seek closer ties with Russia and fight against “Brussels centralizing power.” “We want to be part of the EU but not to lose our identity,” voter Helwig Leibinger told AFP at Hofer’s final rally in Vienna on Friday. “We want a commander-in-chief of the armed forces who can give the right orders.” Although Austria’s presidency is largely ceremonial, observers fear a win for Hofer, 45, would trigger a domino effect in the wake of key elections next year in France, Germany and The Netherlands. Populist groups across Europe, on the right and the left, have benefitted from a growing sense of unease about globalization, multiculturalism, rising inequality, and austerity cuts. The Austrian vote also comes on the same day as a high-stakes referendum in Italy, which could claim the scalp of its prime minister and renew chaos in a bloc already weakened by Britain’s decision in June to quit the EU.
“Nationwide votes in Austria and Italy on Dec. 4 are causing palpable anxiety in Europe that … this will be the day when the sky starts falling,” the Financial Times wrote recently.