Far-right Austrian Politician Leads Country's Presidential Vote

Running on strong anti-immigration, anti-EU platform, Norbert Hofer to contend in second round after failing to attain absolute majority.

Norbert Hofer (L) with head of Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) Heinz-Christian Strache
Reuters, Leonhard Foeger

REUTERS - The candidate for Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) has won more than 36 percent of votes cast in Sunday's presidential election, according to public broadcaster ORF, the party's best result ever in national elections. 

Norbert Hofer, who ran on an anti-immigrant and anti-Europe platform, will now face a run-off against the independent candidates Alexander van der Bellen and former Supreme Court President Irmgard Griss.

Hofer has been described by German media as the FPOe's friendly face, as opposed to the more aggressive party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who has been shunned in Israel due to his extremist views.

An Austrian president has the powers to dismiss a government. But none has since the office was newly defined after World War II. Instead, the role has been traditionally ceremonial, with presidents rarely going beyond gentle criticism of the government. Trying to ease concerns that he would be too confrontational in office, Hofer told reporters that he would be "there for all Austrians." Still, he added "that does not mean that I reject my principles."

Freedom Party chief Strache hailed the "historic event" that he said reflected massive "voter dissatisfaction" with the traditional political landscape. Still, Van der Bellen remained in the running for the second round, with many of those who voted for other candidates likely to swing their support behind him in hopes he will defeat Hofer, and with it deal a blow to the Freedom Party

Van der Bellen, a Green Party veteran, and Griss were neck-and-neck in the first projections, having won nearly 20 percent and nearly 19 percent of votes respectively. For an all-out win a candidate must obtain more than 50 percent of votes. 

This election breaks Austria's postwar tradition of having either a candidate from the center-left Social Democrats or the conservative People's Party to fill the job as head of state. This change could shake the foundation of the two parties' long-running government coalition. 

Van der Bellen has vowed not to swear in any Freedom Party politician as Austria's chancellor if he wins Sunday's vote. The next national election must be held within two years. The president has a six-year mandate.

The incumbent, 77-year-old Social Democrat Heinz Fischer, cannot run for a third term after two six-year terms in office. 

AP contributed to this report