Berliner Tageblatt - Austria torn between far-right 'gladiator' and 'glitterati' professor

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Austria torn between far-right 'gladiator' and 'glitterati' professor
Austria torn between far-right 'gladiator' and 'glitterati' professor / Photo: ©

Austria torn between far-right 'gladiator' and 'glitterati' professor

One is a partially disabled gun enthusiast of the far-right, the other a distinguished elderly professor with Green backing -- Austria's presidential candidates mirror the deep rift splitting the country as it prepares for a tense runoff vote this Sunday.

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In the far-right corner stands 45-year-old Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe) whose resounding first-round victory caught everyone by surprise.

Described as the FPOe's "friendly face", the self-proclaimed political "gladiator" pushes populist themes like anti-immigration with a winning smile instead of the inflammatory rhetoric used by party leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

Hofer's polished campaign, based around the slogan "Unspoilt, honest, good", proved a hit with voters, earning him a whopping 35 percent in the first round -- the FPOe best-ever result at federal level since 1945.

But observers warn that beneath the smooth image lurks a "wolf in sheep's clothing", who has already threatened to seize upon never-before-used presidential powers to fire the government if it fails to get tougher on migrants or boost the faltering economy.

No-one can level the same accusation at Hofer's opponent, ex-Green leader Alexander van der Bellen.

At 72, the grey-haired economics professor cuts a somewhat dishevelled and grouchy-looking figure next to the FPOe's strapping new star who walks with a cane after a paragliding accident.

If "Hofer is the offensive attacker who knows he can only score if he's not too aggressive, van der Bellen comes across as a nice, older gentleman," political expert Peter Hajek told AFP in a recent interview.

But even van der Bellen has at times bared his teeth, saying he would refuse to swear in Strache as chancellor if current poll leader FPOe wins the next general election scheduled for 2018.

The remark prompted Hofer to call him a "green dictator".

In the course of their encounters, the pair have traded increasingly sharp barbs, exposing their glaring differences over issues like the refugee crisis.

- 'I have the people' -

Van der Bellen revealed himself to be a "child of refugees", born in 1944 in Vienna to an aristocratic Russian father and an Estonian mother who had fled Stalinism.

The arrival of the Red Army a year later forced the family to escape to the southern state of Tyrol, where van der Bellen spent an "idyllic childhood".

His academic career led him to become dean of the economics faculty at the University of Vienna, before he joined the Greens in the mid-1990s. The party went on to achieve record results under his decade-long leadership.

His professorial manner has become a trademark sign, often riling Hofer.

"I'm talking about Europe: E-U-R-O-P-E. Never heard of it?" taunted van der Bellen his opponent at a recent TV duel.

"My God, the schoolmasterliness, Herr Doctor van der Bellen," an agitated Hofer shot back.

Van der Bellen's backing from 4,000 public figures including celebrities and senior politicians like Austria's new Chancellor Christian Kern have left his rival unimpressed.

"You have the glitterati, but I have the people," Hofer commented.

- Steady climb -

Hofer, a trained aeronautical engineer, has had a slow but steady climb to the top of the FPOe leadership the past two decades.

Born on March 2, 1971, Hofer grew up as the son of a local conservative councillor in Burgenland state.

After a short stint at the now-defunct Lauda Air airline, Hofer joined the FPOe's Burgenland branch in 1994 and became party secretary two years later.

Moving up through the ranks, he later became a close advisor to Strache who took over the party reins from the charismatic Joerg Haider in 2005.

On Hofer's advice, Strache dropped openly xenophobic comments to adopt a more moderate course and focus on social welfare and purchasing power, to steal support from the traditional parties as the economic crisis hit.

The move paid off, with the FPOe now consistently leading opinion polls.

- 'Love to shoot' -

Despite his amiable appearance, Hofer is a true-blue far-right supporter and member of a student fraternity, who has repeatedly reminded the electorate that he defended "Freedom party interests".

Hofer's Instagram account shows the father-of-four -- who has admitted to occasionally carrying a Glock gun in public -- at a shooting range with his children.

"I just love to shoot," he declared in a recent interview, saying he understood the rising trend of gun owners in Austria "given current uncertainties".