Austrian presidential hopeful aims to hammer far right with Trump's own message

November 11, 2016 12:34 PM EST

Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, who is supported by the Greens, addresses a news conference in Vienna, Austria November 10, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader


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By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) - The independent candidate in Austria's tight presidential run-off plans to use the far right's support for Donald Trump as a weapon against it to ensure the U.S. election outcome will not help his opponent as many suspect.

Former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly won a run-off in May against the anti-immigration Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer, but the result was overturned in July. The re-run is due to be held on Dec. 4.

Events since the original run-off, including Britain's vote to exit the European Union, appear to have had little effect on the race for Austria's largely ceremonial presidency, with polls giving a slight edge to Hofer but within the margin of error.

But Trump's victory on Tuesday, on top of Brexit, has raised the prospect of a right-wing populist wave sweeping the West.

A survey in Austria by pollster Market conducted on Tuesday found 58 percent of respondents believe Trump's victory would boost Hofer's chances of winning, with only 14 percent saying it would lift Van der Bellen.

"It is, I think, a mistake to change strategy in a short-term panic," Van der Bellen, a softly spoken, 72-year-old former economics professor, told Reuters in an interview on Friday. "You can refine and change tactics, but not the broad line."

Asked what tactical changes he had in mind, he said: "Point out slightly more directly what it means if you support Donald Trump in such a fervent manner. Does it mean you also support what he (promised) during the campaign? Does it mean you are against health insurance in Austria? Does it mean you want to wall off the borders whatever the cost?"

The Freedom Party (FPO), which like Trump has capitalized on grassroots fears about unemployment and immigration as well as anger at the political establishment, congratulated Trump on his victory. But it has been less enthusiastic in its support for him than some of its European allies, such as the far-right National Front in France.

Van der Bellen is also seeking to capitalize on Hofer's U-turn on Britain's Brexit vote - Hofer initially said Austria could hold its own referendum on leaving the EU within a year, but now no longer wants one.

"Mr Hofer is constantly changing his strategy," Van der Bellen said, and was likely to dissolve parliament to bring about a snap election that polls suggest his party would win.

NO SUPERMAN

Van der Bellen has also said that a Hofer victory would lead to the FPO taking control of government, but he stopped short on Friday of saying he would use the president's influence in forming coalitions to block the FPO entirely.

"I would in any case like for a pro-European government to lead the country after the election. Whether I can have my way is another question, but that is my goal," he said.

It was not clear what effect Trump's victory would have in Austria, a country with less income disparity and a stronger welfare state than Britain or the United States, he said.

"We just saw how much opinion polls are worth during Trump's election," he said, referring to the stunning upset victory. "That alone does not unsettle me. Rather I would say that we just don't know (what effect it will have)."

The chain-smoking former economist added that while he understood some of the public anger fuelling support for his 45-year-old opponent, he was only willing to go so far in promising to make things better.

"I am not saying I am Superman. That goes against who I am and I worked in academia too long to speak so boastfully. But I dare say that it would be better for Austria's economy if I were elected than Mr Hofer," he said.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)



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