Amid Fears of Right, Austrian Jews Issue Rare Call to Vote in Charged Election

Tuesday's repeat vote could produce the European Union's first right-wing president; the Jewish community has endorsed a candidate for the first time - Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent.

Alexander Van der Bellen, candidate of the Austrian Greens, left, and Norbert Hofer of Austria's Freedom Party, FPOE, ahead of their TV debate in Vienna on November 27, 2016.
Alexander Van der Bellen, candidate of the Austrian Greens, left, and Norbert Hofer of Austria's Freedom Party, FPOE, ahead of their TV debate in Vienna on November 27, 2016. Ronald Zak/AP

Austria's Jewish community recommended on Tuesday that voters back an independent candidate at an election that could produce the first right-wing president in the European Union - the first time it has ever declared an endorsement.

Former Green party leader Alexander Van der Bellen is running neck-and-neck with the right-wing Freedom Party (FPO) candidate Norbert Hofer in a repeat-election seen as the country's most important in decades.

For the first time in more than 50 years, Austria's highest office will be held neither by a social democrat nor a Christian Democrat candidate. The election first held in May was won by Van der Bellen but a rerun was called because of irregularities in the count of the postal ballots.

"Van der Bellen is not the lesser of two evils, he is the better candidate and has been a friend of the Jewish community and Israel for many decades," Oskar Deutsch, President of the Jewish Communities of Austria (IKG), which represents around 15,000 jews, said on Facebook.

Without naming him, Deutsch spoke out against Norbert Hofer, who is running an "Austria first" campaign and has said that Islam is not a part of Austria.

Withdrawing into the Austrian shell can never be the answer to international crises, Deutsch said. Austria's president had to respect every religion including Islam and to combat any "anti-attitude" tendencies.

The FPO, whose first leader was a decorated member of the Nazi SS and whose former leader Joerg Haider in the 1990s cited the "proper labour policies" of Adolf Hitler, says it is friendly toward Israel.

In early November, the party hosted an event with Rafael Eitan, the Israeli former intelligence officer who hunted down war criminal Adolf Eichmann, to demonstrate its pro-Jewish policy.

Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache said he was furious about the sight of swastikas daubed on the Jewish cemetery and called anti-Semitism a crime. Both Strache and Hofer have visited Israel.

"Symbolic visits to Israel are not suitable for covering dubious sets of values," the IKG's Deutsch said.