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Austrians To Vote Again After May's Presidential Runoff Was Disallowed


Austrians are voting in their second presidential runoff election on Sunday. The first try came last May, and the results were thrown out because of voting irregularities. In that first run, a left-leaning independent narrowly defeated a far-right populist. It's a race for a ceremonial post, but this rerun for the job is reverberating across Europe because some people worry the outcome could further weaken their union. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Vienna.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: To hear the campaigns tell it, Sunday's vote is about the survival of Austria. One side promises to bring the political elite to its knees. The other warns of looming dictatorship. The rhetoric is extreme under postwar Austrian norms.



NELSON: But the race here between Alexander Van der Bellen, a grandfatherly and sometimes gruff economist who narrowly won the first runoff in May...


NORBERT HOFER: (Speaking German).

NELSON: ...And Norbert Hofer, the younger and charismatic aeronautical engineer who has a slight lead in many opinion polls, is too close to call. That has each side clawing for an advantage and comparing their opponent to the most notorious Austrian, Adolf Hitler.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Van der Bellen's camp released this ad on YouTube featuring a Holocaust survivor who implicitly compares Hofer's campaign language to Hitler's. Meanwhile, members of Hofer's far-right Freedom Party of Austria photoshopped Van der Bellen against an Alpine backdrop. The pose was similar to one Hitler struck decades earlier in the same setting. Markus Wagner at the University of Vienna questions whether such tactics work.

MARKUS WAGNER: I think most people made up their minds in May, and they haven't really changed their minds. The interesting question is turnout, so whether some people will stay home or whether some people will be mobilized now because they know it will be close.

NELSON: Supporters of Van der Bellen, a member of the leftist Green Party who is running as an independent, warn that a Hofer win will divide Austrian society and could lead to an exit of the Alpine country from the European Union, something most Austrians oppose. Supporters of Hofer warn that a fund in win will lead to more Muslim migrants entering Austria as well as financial insecurity. Van der Bellen's campaign declined to be interviewed.

DAVID LASAR: (Speaking German).

NELSON: But MP David Lasar of Hofer's Freedom Party was eager to show that his party is not a threat to Austrian democracy. Lasar, who is Jewish, adds that if Hofer is elected, he would likely go to Israel on one of his first state visits. Their Austrian party also recently held a conference here on combating anti-Semitism.

LASAR: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Lasar rejects claims that such efforts are nothing more than an attempt by the Freedom Party to whitewash its links to Nazis, both old and new. He says the goal instead is to fight rising anti-Semitism in Austria that the party blames on migrants from Muslim countries. Both candidates also tried to use Donald Trump's surprise victory to their advantage, with Van der Bellen warning against Hofer's populism and Hofer saying, like Trump, he wants to take down the establishment. A recent Gallup survey showed 53 percent of the Austrians questioned believe the so-called Trump bump will likely benefit Hofer. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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