Alexander Van der Bellen.jpg
Photograph: EPA/FLORIAN WIESER

The Austrian presidential election did not produce a clear winner on Sunday, as Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen and his far-right rival Norbert Hofer stand neck and neck and will have to wait until Monday for the final count.

Former Green party chief Van der Bellen was projected to lead by fewer than 3,000 votes Sunday evening, a margin that was too narrow to produce a definitive result.

This means that both candidates won 50.0 per cent of the votes, according to projections by the SORA institute, and that absentee ballots that will be counted until Monday evening will decide the election.

The close race reflects a widening division in Austrian society between those who have welcomed the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees since last year, and those who fear that the influx threatens their standard of living.

In addition, exit polls showed an economic divide: People who feel economically secure mostly voted for the former Green party chief, while those who expect their living standard to decline backed Hofer.

An estimated 86 per cent of workers cast their ballots for Hofer, who currently serves as a deputy president of parliament.

Both candidates stressed that the 50 per cent who back Hofer should not be viewed as extreme right-wingers, but as people who protested against the centrist government's lack of vision in the face of a gloomy economic outlook.

Far-right sympathizers are only a small part of Hofer's voters, Van der Bellen said.

"The other part of voters are angry and furious about the standstill in the past," he said, expressing hope that things will change after the Social Democrat Christian Kern was sworn in as new chancellor on Tuesday.

The idea that a Freedom Party president would be the worst thing to happen in Austria since the Nazi era was "completely absurd," Hofer said, reacting to some Western media commentators.

However, a win for Hofer could further embolden the anti-immigration and anti-EU populist movement in Europe as the region faces an ongoing refugee crisis and Britain's upcoming referendum about its membership in the European Union.

The Freedom Party's eurosceptic and xenophobic stance is embodied by other populist parties in Europe, which means the Austrian 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.

Hofer entered the final election as the favourite, after the 45-year-old won the first round in April.

Van der Bellen, 72, came in second in April. Although he ran as an independent, his campaign was financed by the Greens.

"It's a photo finish," Van der Bellen's campaign manager Lothar Lockl said.

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

Hofer, on the other hand, wants a less centralized European Union and more public referenda in Austria - a move that would follow the example of neighbouring Switzerland, where the right-wing People's Party has pushed a xenophobic agenda through referendum campaigns.

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

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

Austria's sitting Social Democratic president Heinz Fischer is scheduled to hand over his office to his successor on July 8.

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