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Far-Right Candidate Tops First Round Of Austrian Presidential Elections

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Austria, a populist far-right candidate could win Sunday's presidential runoff thanks to his blunt talk against immigrants and Muslims. The Austrian presidency is largely a ceremonial post, but the vote is getting a lot of attention. It could be the first significant victory for the far-right parties that have been growing stronger in Europe. Joanna Kakissis sent this report from Vienna.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER VAN DER BELLEN: (Foreign language spoken).

NORBERT HOFER: (Foreign language spoken).

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: The debate was tense, and the two candidates could not be more different - on one side, Alexander Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor with wiry gray hair and a cigarette-cured voice. He used to chair for the leftist Green party - on the other side, the man interrupting him - Norbert Hofer of Austria's Freedom Party, a career politician who trained as an airplane mechanic. He sometimes wears a blue cornflower on his lapel, a symbol once favored by Austrian Nazis. Hofer says he wants to secure Austria's southern borders, stop the Muslim invasion and shake up the European Union.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HOFER: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "I don't need Europeans to vote for me," he declares. "I need Austrians."

FRITZ STEIN: Mr. Hofer is No. 1 for Austria, and Austrian people for Mr. Hofer, number one.

KAKISSIS: That's businessman Fritz Stein. He's drinking a beer at a boisterous pro-Hofer rally in a working-class neighborhood in South Vienna. He says moderate politicians only care about foreigners.

STEIN: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "They would give lots of welfare money to an Afghan family," he says, "not an Austrian family." Also at the rally is waitress Karin Schwartz, who says Austria has admitted too many migrants - 90,000 last year.

KARIN SCHWARTZ: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "We don't need any more Muslims," she says. "They cause problems. We only want Christians."

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in foreign language).

KAKISSIS: The night before, at a much smaller anti-Hofer rally, Van der Bellen supporters sang about solidarity and waved posters supporting refugees. Van der Bellen is a child of refugees. His parents fled the Soviet occupation of Estonia.

VAN DER BELLEN: (Foreign language spoken).

KAKISSIS: He says immigrants help a country's economy. Just look through Vienna's phonebook, he says, and you will find many successful immigrant businesses. That's one reason why the bohemian neighborhood of Neubau in central Vienna strongly backed Van der Bellen in the first round of the presidential election last month.

Ursula Berner, a publisher and longtime Green party supporter, stops by a cafe where volunteers offer free German lessons to refugees. She says that besides railing against immigrants, Hofer has won support by playing the antiestablishment card like other national politicians across Europe.

URSULA BERNER: (Through interpreter) I'm worried about radicalization in Europe. Look at what's happening in Poland and Hungary or with the rise of Marine Le Pen in France. We don't need another politician in Europe who divides us by blaming everything on an outside enemy. That could kill the European Union.

KAKISSIS: Polls show a tight race, but Hofer is already acting like he's won. He threatens to dissolve Parliament if the government, a coalition of long-ruling establishment parties, does not deal with migrants and the economy within six months. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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