August 23, 2016 / 1:56 PM / 4 years ago

Austrian independent presidential hopeful bets on EU against far-right rival

VIENNA (Reuters) - In Austria’s presidential run-off, the independent running against a far-right candidate is aiming to use public concerns over Brexit against his rival, who has said the country should in some cases consider leaving the European Union.

Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, who is supported by the Greens, delivers a speech during the presentation of his campaign posters for a re-run of the run-off presidential election in Vienna, Austria, August 23, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Former Austrian Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen focused his campaign squarely on his EU-friendly credentials on Tuesday to fight against his euro sceptic rival Norbert Hofer, who could become the EU’s first far-right head of state.

The anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) has pledged to support a referendum on Austria leaving the European Union if Turkey joins the bloc or if significantly more political power is transferred from member states to Brussels.

Van der Bellen narrowly won a previous runoff vote in May, but Hofer’s anti-Islam FPO successfully challenged the result, and the country’s Constitutional Court has ordered a re-run.

“The reaction after the count (in May) encouraged me... I received several spontaneous calls from Brussels and other (EU) capitals. In English one would say that a sigh of relief went through Europe,” Van der Bellen said at a campaign event.

The FPO and its European allies, such as France’s National Front, congratulated Britain on its vote in June to leave the EU, but a poll shortly after that referendum found that a majority of Austrians did not want their country to follow suit.

FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache has watered down his language on leaving the bloc - referred to as Auxit or Oexit, after the German name for Austria. He now describes his party as EU-critical rather than wanting an exit referendum in any case.

Unveiling his new campaign posters on Tuesday ahead of the re-run vote on Oct. 2, Van der Bellen sought to capitalise on the FPO’s shifting stance.

“It’s my firm conviction that any talk, even if just talk, speculating about the so-called Oexit... is already harmful,” Van der Bellen said in front of posters saying ‘For the standing of Austria’ and ‘Stronger together - no to Oexit’.

Despite the FPO’s mixed message on Brexit, recent polls have largely shown Hofer ahead of Van der Bellen but within the margin of error for the largely ceremonial role, which nevertheless holds the power to dismiss the cabinet.

More generally, the FPO is running first in opinion polls ahead of a parliamentary election due by 2018.

The Constitutional Court annulled the May vote because of widespread failure by election officials to comply with rules on how postal ballots should be counted, but the court found no proof of fraud.

Reporting By Shadia Nasralla

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