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Austria votes in key test for far right

Do Not UseDo Not Use 22/05/2016
Noebert Hofer (left) and Alexander Van der Bellen vote, 21 May (composite image) © AFP Noebert Hofer (left) and Alexander Van der Bellen vote, 21 May (composite image)

Austrians have begun voting in a presidential run-off poll that could elect the European Union's first far-right head of state.

Rise of nationalists in Europe - graphic © BBC Rise of nationalists in Europe - graphic

Norbert Hofer, of the Freedom Party, faces independent Alexander Van der Bellen, backed by the Greens.

Mr Hofer topped the first vote but fell well short of an outright majority. The run-off is expected to be close.

For the first time since World War Two, both the main centrist parties were knocked out in the first round.

The migrant crisis has become the key issue.

Ninety-thousand people claimed asylum in Austria last year, equivalent to about 1% of the Austrian population, and the Freedom Party has run a campaign against immigration.

The presidency is a largely ceremonial post but a Hofer victory could be the springboard for Freedom Party success in the next parliamentary elections, scheduled for 2018.

Europe will be watching: Bethany Bell, BBC News, Vienna

Austria is faced with a stark choice for its head of state: a Green Party professor, Alexander Van der Bellen, or Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party - a soft-spoken, charismatic gun enthusiast who won a decisive victory in the first round of voting in April.

For the first time since the Second World War, the traditional parties of the centre left and centre right were knocked out of the race.

Support for the Freedom Party has risen because of deep frustration with the established parties and, more recently, because of fears about the migrant crisis.

Right-wing parties are gaining strength in a number of EU countries. European leaders will be watching the result closely.

Read more from Bethany

Is Europe lurching to the far right?

Europe's nationalist surge, country by country

Polls opened at 07:00 (05:00 GMT) and close at 17:00, with projected results expected shortly afterwards.

However, postal ballots, which could be crucial if the result is close, will only be tallied on Monday.

In the first round, Mr Hofer, 45, secured 35% of the votes, while Mr Van der Belle polled 21%.

At his final election rally on Friday in Vienna, Mr Hofer, 45, sought to hammer home his message that immigrants needed to integrate.

"Those people who respect and love Austria and have found a new home here are warmly welcome," he said to applause.

"But those, it has to be said, those who do not value our country, who fight for Islamic State, or who rape women, I say to these people: this is not your homeland. You cannot stay in Austria."

The presidents of the European Commission and the European Parliament, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, have both expressed concern that Mr Hofer could win.

"I say to them very politely but firmly: we don't take orders from Brussels or Berlin," Mr Hofer said at the rally.

Mr Van der Bellen told his final rally in Vienna that it was likely to be a close race.

"I think it could be on a knife edge - 50-50 who will win, so this time, as with previous votes, but more than ever for this important election, every vote will count," he said.

At a news conference, he reflected: "As you know, I am 72 years old and I've experienced how Austria rose from the ruins of World War Two, caused by the madness of nationalism."

The two rivals had engaged in an angry TV debate earlier in the week, described as "political mud-wrestling" by commentators.

First round shock

Such was the political shock at the far right's first-round win that the Chancellor (prime minister), Werner Faymann, resigned after losing the support of his Social Democratic party colleagues.

The Social Democrats and the People's Party have governed Austria for decades, either alone or in coalition.

At the last general election in 2013, they together won just enough votes to govern in a "grand coalition".

Incumbent President Heinz Fischer, 77, could not run again after two terms in office.

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