Austria's far-right presidential hopeful inspired by Trump victory

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer sees Donald Trump’s U.S. victory as proof that he is on the right track with his populist Austria-first election campaign that includes calls to stop immigration.

Austrian far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) presidential candidate Norbert Hofer gestures during an interview with Reuters in his office in Vienna, Austria, November 16, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

“Wherever the elites distance themselves from voters, those elites will be voted out of office,” the Freedom Party’s presidential hopeful said in an interview with Reuters.

Like the U.S. president-elect, 45-year-old Hofer sees himself as a nationalist who recognizes the concerns of ordinary people who have been ignored by a political establishment.

“One comparison could be that Trump also had strong (political) headwinds in the U.S. and he won the election anyway,” Hofer said.

Trump’s triumph and Britons’ vote in June to quit the European Union have unleashed a populist tsunami that could transform Europe’s political landscape.

Austria’s presidential run-off on Dec. 4, expected to be a close call, could make Hofer the European Union’s first far-right head of state. More elections with far-fight candidates in the frame are set for the Netherlands, France and Germany next year.

Hofer lost a run-off in May by a mere 31,000 votes against former Greens Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen but got a new chance when the constitutional court annulled the result due to counting irregularities.

Hofer, a well-dressed and softly spoken engineer, has focused on the refugee crisis, rallying for a ban on what the Freedom Party calls “economic migrants”.

“Of course this is a human issue, but I cannot completely ignore the budgetary burden,” Hofer said.

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Hofer supports the idea of creating what he called “safety areas” outside Europe where asylum requests should be processed.

Austria - a nation of 8.7 million - has taken in more than 120,000 migrants from the Middle East, Africa and Asia since last year, bearing much of the burden of the influx together with Germany and Sweden. This left many Austrians angry about the EU’s failure to find joint solutions.

Hofer, who voted against Austria’s joining the EU in 1994, has backed off from previous calls for an “Oexit” - an Austrian exit from the EU - after the British decision in June to leave the bloc led to increased fears and uncertainty.

“The European Union – that is us, the member countries - made the big mistake of not complying with our own agreements, of not taking ourselves seriously any more,” he said.

“I hope that there will be something like a wake-up call, that people say, we realized that we made big mistakes.”

Export-dependent Austria has long been closely committed to the EU: two-thirds voted to join in 1994. Around 70 percent would vote for ‘remain’ after the Brexit decision, according to a survey by polling institute SORA in July.


Asked about European sanctions against Russia, Hofer said he was “very much in favor” of them being lifted, echoing calls from Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz from the conservative Peoples’ Party (OVP).

The OVP has been struggling to find joint positions with their Social Democrats coalition partners on numerous issues including new rules on minimum social benefits.

Political analysts say that if Hofer wins the presidency, this could lead to early parliamentary elections and an end to the centrist, pro-European coalition that has dominated Austrian politics for decades.

“I am hearing from many sides that fresh election dates are apparently already on the agenda,” Hofer said.

The Freedom Party has led opinion polls for months, reaching scores of up to 35 percent and leaving the centrists far behind.

Asked whether the Freedom Party might challenge the result of the Dec. 4 vote, as it successfully did with the previous presidential run-off in May, Hofer said: “(This) will not happen. I cannot imagine that there will be irregularities as was the case last time. I think Austrians can relax.”

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Editing by Jeremy Gaunt