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Austria’s next president: Far-right ‘gladiator’ or green professor?

Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe), founded by ex-Nazis, and gentlemanly Alexander Van der Bellen of the Greens, mirror country’s deep divisions

Alexander Van der Bellen, left, candidate for presidential elections of the Austrian Greens, and Norbert Hofer, right , candidate of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party, FPOE, pose before the start of a television debate in Vienna, Austria, November 27, 2016. (AFP/JOE KLAMAR)
Alexander Van der Bellen, left, candidate for presidential elections of the Austrian Greens, and Norbert Hofer, right , candidate of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party, FPOE, pose before the start of a television debate in Vienna, Austria, November 27, 2016. (AFP/JOE KLAMAR)

VIENNA, Austria (AFP) — One is a gun-loving populist and Islam critic, the other an elderly pro-EU professor with Green backing — the rivals in Austria’s presidential re-run on Sunday mirror the deep fault lines splitting both the country and Europe.

In the far-right corner stands parliamentary speaker Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe), founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s.

The 45-year-old narrowly lost the election in May but now has another shot after the initial run-off was annulled over procedural irregularities.

Described as the FPOe’s “friendly face,” the self-proclaimed political “gladiator” pushes themes like anti-immigration with a winning smile instead of the incendiary rhetoric of party chief Heinz-Christian Strache.

Hofer’s polished campaign — run under the slogan “Tough in action, engaging in tone” — earned him 35 percent in the first round in April, the FPOe’s best-ever result at federal level since 1945.

But observers warn the smooth politician is a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” who has already threatened to seize upon never-before-used presidential powers to fire the government or call a referendum on Austria’s European Union membership.

Norbert Hofer, candidate of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party, FPOE, during a television debate, in Vienna, Austria, November 27, 2016. (AFP/JOE KLAMAR)
Norbert Hofer, candidate of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, FPOE, during a television debate, in Vienna, Austria, November 27, 2016. (AFP/JOE KLAMAR)

No-one can level the same accusation at ex-Greens chief Alexander Van der Bellen.

At 72, the grey-haired economics expert cuts a somewhat disheveled and often grouchy-looking figure next to the FPOe’s strapping poster boy who walks with a cane after a paragliding accident.

If “Hofer is the offensive attacker who knows he can only score if he’s not too aggressive, Van der Bellen comes across as a nice, older gentleman,” political expert Peter Hajek said.

But even Van der Bellen has at times bared his teeth, saying he would refuse to swear in Strache as chancellor if current poll leader FPOe wins the next general election scheduled for 2018.

The remark prompted Hofer to call him a “green dictator.”

In the course of their encounters, the pair have traded increasingly sharp barbs, exposing their glaring differences over issues like immigration.

‘I have the people’

Van der Bellen was born during World War II in Vienna to an aristocratic Russian father and an Estonian mother who fled Stalinism — earning him the tag “communist” from Hofer.

The arrival of the Red Army in 1945 forced the family to escape to the southern state of Tyrol, where Van der Bellen spent an “idyllic childhood.”

Austrian Presidential election candidate Alexander van der Bellen arrives for a television debate in Vienna, Austria, November 27, 2016. (AFP/APA/GEORG HOCHMUTH)
Austrian Presidential election candidate Alexander van der Bellen arrives for a television debate in Vienna, Austria, November 27, 2016. (AFP/APA/GEORG HOCHMUTH)

His academic career saw him become dean of the economics faculty at the University of Vienna, before he joined the Greens in the mid-1990s. The party achieved record results under his decade-long leadership.

Van der Bellen’s trademark professorial manner has often riled Hofer.

“I’m talking about Europe: E-U-R-O-P-E. Never heard of it?” Van der Bellen taunted his opponent during a TV encounter earlier this year.

“My God, the schoolmasterliness, Herr Doctor Van der Bellen,” an agitated Hofer shot back.

Van der Bellen’s huge backing from celebrities and the country’s top politicians has left his rival unimpressed.

“You have the glitterati, but I have the people,” the far-right politician observed.

Steady climb

Hofer, a trained aeronautical engineer, has had a slow but steady climb to the top over the past two decades.

The son of a conservative councilor in Burgenland state, he joined the FPOe in 1994 and was made party secretary two years later.

Norbert Hofer, candidate of Austria's right-wing Freedom Party, FPOE, arrives for a television debate in Vienna, Austria, November 27, 2016. (AFP/JOE KLAMAR)
Norbert Hofer, candidate of Austria’s right-wing Freedom Party, FPOE, arrives for a television debate in Vienna, Austria, November 27, 2016. (AFP/JOE KLAMAR)

Biding his time, he later became a close adviser to Strache who took over the party reins from the charismatic Joerg Haider in 2005.

On Hofer’s advice, Strache dropped openly xenophobic comments to adopt a more moderate course and focus on social welfare and purchasing power, to steal support from the traditional parties as the economic crisis hit.

The strategy paid off, with the FPOe now consistently topping opinion polls.

During his own campaign, Hofer has mainly pushed for Swiss-style direct democracy and opposition to international trade deals.

While his core support is among the working and rural classes, he has won support right across Austrian society.

‘Love to shoot’

Yet, despite his amiable appearance, Hofer is a true-blue far-right proponent who wants a “Europe of fatherlands” and says “Islam is not a part of Austria.”

Critics have also highlighted his membership of a pan-Germanic student fraternity.

“When we speak about Norbert Hofer, we speak about someone fascinated with the ideology of a Greater Germany… someone pulled from the hat of a party chief with links to the neo-Nazi scene,” according to Austrian news magazine Profil.

Hofer’s Instagram account shows the father-of-four — who occasionally carries a Glock pistol in public — at a shooting range with his children.

“I just love to shoot,” he once declared, saying he understood the rising trend of gun owners in Austria “given current uncertainties.”

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