Norbert Hofer.jpg
Photograph: EPA/FILIP SINGER

Austrians went to the polls Sunday in a presidential election that serves as a bellwether for rising populist sentiments in Europe.

Norbert Hofer of the right-wing populist Freedom Party enters the run-off election as the favourite, after the 45-year-old won the first round in April with 35 per cent of the votes.

Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old former Green party leader, came in second in April, with 21 per cent. Although he runs as an independent, his campaign was financed by the Greens.

As the Freedom Party has a eurosceptic and anti-immigration stance that is also followed by other populist parties in Europe, the presidential race has drawn an unusual amount of attention abroad, especially in neighbouring Germany, where the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) enjoys growing support.

Andre Poggenburg, the AfD chief in the eastern German state of Saxony-Anhalt, said Saturday that a win by Hofer would be a signal for Germany and noted an "atmosphere of change when it comes to national parties" in Europe.

After the first round of voting in April, right-wing representatives of the Front National in France and the Northern League in Italy congratulated Hofer.

Van der Bellen has been stressing the importance of having a stable and unified European Union and of maintaining a humane refugee policy.

Austrian presidents fulfill a mostly ceremonial role, and neither Van der Bellen nor Hofer would be able to change national policies.

However, Van der Bellen and left-wing commentators have warned that a vote for Hofer could pave the way for a Freedom Party government, given that the opposition rightists have been leading in national polls for the past year.

Some 6.4 million Austrians are eligible to vote. Pollsters will issue first projections after ballots close at 5 pm (1500 GMT).

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