Right-wing candidate Hofer leads Austrian presidential race poll

ZURICH (Reuters) - Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer has widened his lead in a Gallup poll ahead of October’s repeat election for the Austrian presidency.

Presidential candidate Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe) attends the retirement ceremony of Austria's President Heinz Fischer (not pictured) at the federal assembly in Vienna, Austria, July 8, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Hofer lost by a whisker in May to former Greens party leader Alexander van der Bellen in an election that Austria’s constitutional court this month ordered re-run given vote count irregularities.

A series of Islamist attacks in Europe and Britain’s decision to leave the EU since the original vote have shuffled the political deck in neutral Austria.

The poll published by the Oesterreich paper on Sunday showed the midpoint of the wide range of support for Hofer at 52 percent -- one point higher than a poll in early July found -- versus 48 percent for van der Bellen.

Fifty-seven percent of the 600 respondents cited Hofer’s personality as the most important factor, followed by “protection from terror” at 56 percent and “more stringent asylum policy” at 55 percent, the paper said.

The poll also showed the anti-Islam and eurosceptic Freedom Party (FPO) with record-high 35 percent support, far ahead of the governing coalition partners: the Social Democrats at 25 percent and conservative People’s Party at 19 percent.

FPO leader Heinz Christian Strache has repeatedly accused d the government of taking too soft a line on Europe’s migrant crisis, which the FPO says has exposed Austria to danger.

In an interview with Oesterreich, Strache demanded EU sanctions to punish Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan for what Strache called anti-democratic crackdowns on opponents after a failed coup.

“What we need are an immediate halt to (EU) membership negotiations and payments worth billions, as well as sanctions finally. If the EU’s hypocritical policy sees the introduction of the death penalty announced by Erdogan as a red line, that is pure cynicism. The red line was crossed long ago,” he said.

Hofer, 45, lost out in May by just 31,000 votes to pro-Europe candidate van der Bellen, 72. But Austria’s highest court annulled the vote, finding that sloppiness in the count, while not intended to manipulate any votes, had potentially been serious enough to change the outcome.

If successful, he would be the first far-right head of state in a European Union country.

Reporting by Michael Shields