BERLIN — Populist, far-right candidate Norbert Hofer was locked in a projected dead heat with his opponent in Austria’s presidential election on Sunday, with the outcome of the high-stakes race dependent on a count of absentee ballots.
Hofer, a 45-year old who campaigned on an anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and anti-establishment platform, held a lead in the direct vote, winning 51.9 percent, according to the Interior Ministry. Alexander Van der Bellen, a longtime Green Party politician running as an independent, won 48.1 percent.
But hundreds of thousands of absentee ballots, set to be counted Monday, could yet swing the result. Given that Green voters tend to cast ballots by mail, Austria’s SORA Institute issued normally reliable projections showing the candidates effectively tied at 50 percent each.
Voter turnout was relatively high, almost 72 percent.
The closeness of the race turned an election being watched across Europe into a nail-biter, with the outcome likely to reverberate far beyond the Alpine nation of 8.5 million.
The unexpected strength of Hofer’s candidacy — the Freedom Party politician had a surprise first-place finish in an initial round last month — caught many observers off guard. It reflected, analysts say, the historical roots of Austria’s far right. But it also seemed to capture the populist zeitgeist coursing through the West, from the United States to Europe.
Hofer has called, for instance, for a fence on Austria’s southern border to keep migrants out and has denounced Islam as a threat to Europe’s Christian identity. His opponent has preached tolerance and acceptance.
“We’ll have to wait until tomorrow,” Hofer told reporters late Sunday. After casting his vote earlier in the day in Pinkafeld, a town in his eastern home state of Burgenland, he replied in English after being asked about fears that he would push a far-right agenda.
“I'm not a dangerous person,” Hofer said.
Van der Bellen, meanwhile, told reporters in the capital, Vienna, on Sunday that he was “cautiously optimistic” of a win. He asked for a moment of silence for the victims of a gun rampage early Sunday at a music festival in western Austria. A 27-year-old man shot randomly into the crowd, killing two people and wounding 11 before turning the gun on himself, according to authorities.
Firearms had become a major issue in the Austrian campaign, with Hofer being criticized for publicly proclaiming his love of shooting. Under pressure to appeal to conservative voters, even Van der Bellen this month was compelled to publicly reject accusations of being a “hunter hater.”
A win by Hofer could embolden the far right across Europe while rocking Austrian politics. Since the early 20th century, the post of Austrian president has been largely ceremonial. But Hofer has vowed to flex the muscles of the office in new ways. He has threatened, for example, to use his power to fire the sitting government — a ruling coalition of the two parties that have dominated Austrian politics since the end of World War II — if it does not control migration.
Stephanie Kirchner contributed to this report.