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Absentee Ballots Likely To Decide Austria's Presidential Election

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's turn to an election in Europe that has brought a presidential candidate who talks tough on immigration and Muslims to the cusp of victory. Austrians voted for a new president yesterday. But there's still no winner. Nearly all the votes have been counted, and there's an even split right now between a far-right populist and a left-leaning independent who says immigration helps the economy. The results are being watched very closely across Europe where the migration crisis has upended establishment politicians. Reporter Joanna Kakissis is on the line now from Vienna. Joanna, good morning.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So let's get this straight. Austria is a parliamentary democracy. The presidency there, I mean, normally seen as mostly a ceremonial post. So why are people watching this election so closely?

KAKISSIS: You know, well, Austria is just one of a string of European countries where a far-right anti-immigrant party is gaining momentum. Ninety thousand migrants applied for asylum in Austria last year. All these migrants and refugees arriving in such a short time led to this backlash against the government that allowed this to happen.

So, you know, in the first round of the Austrian presidential vote last month, the two candidates from the ruling government coalition were eliminated. And the man who got the most votes was Norbert Hofer from the far-right Freedom Party. He has said, and I quote, "we have to stop this invasion of Muslims." And half of Austrians voted for him yesterday. If Hofer is elected, he would be the first European Union head of state from a far-right party. And this carries very special symbolism in Austria because of the Nazi past here.

GREENE: Well, you mention all these migrants applying for asylum. I mean, is the refugee situation - I mean, is that really what has led to his political rise?

KAKISSIS: Yes, in part. I mean, the arrival of so many refugees is a big reason because the party has often evoked a German phrase ueberfremdung, which means, roughly, being overtaken by strangers. And Freedom Party voters - I interviewed several of them at the polls yesterday - they told me that migrants are taking social welfare benefits intended for Austrians or that migrants are attacking them. Here's how one Freedom Party member - her name is Katharina Wurzner - here's how she sees things.

KATHARINA WURZNER: There was a woman raped two weeks ago just going on the toilet in the metro station, yeah. And it was an immigrant, very young. There was a woman in Vienna also killed by migration people from Kenya.

KAKISSIS: Now the crime rate hasn't increased overall. But there has been media coverage of a spate of recent attacks by migrants against women. So yes, there is this sense that strangers are literally overpowering you.

GREENE: All right. So we have this candidate who, I mean, is certainly responding to some of that anger, on the cusp of victory. I mean, does he have a real shot here? What are the - what's the latest with the vote count?

KAKISSIS: So Austria's interior ministry is saying Hofer is in the lead right now with nearly 52 percent of the vote. And his opponent, former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen - he has about 48 percent. But what we're waiting for today are the absentee ballots. And those account for about 14 percent of eligible voters.

GREENE: And Joanna, I mean, while this could be very important symbolically, is it largely symbolism? I mean, would Hofer actually have power in this role as president?

KAKISSIS: That's a good question because the Austrian president actually does have the power to dissolve Parliament and trigger new elections, although no Austrian president has actually ever done it. But Hofer has said that if he's elected, he would do this. And opinion polls are suggesting that if parliamentary elections were held today, Hofer's Freedom Party would win.

GREENE: All right, Joanna Kakissis reporting on the Austrian elections from Vienna. Joanna, thanks as always.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.