Austrians vote Sunday in a presidential election expected to return incumbent Alexander Van der Bellen, seen as a beacon of stability as the Alpine EU member struggles with an energy crisis and inflation.
Campaigning on a slogan of “clarity,” Van der Bellen is widely tipped to clinch a second mandate, with his six challengers — all men — lagging far behind.
“The biggest competitor on Sunday will be the sofa,” the 78-year-old economics professor said Friday at his last campaign rally, appealing to people to vote.
Polls put the pro-European liberal as securing more than 50% of the vote, thus avoiding a run-off vote.
Some 6.4 million people are eligible to cast their ballots from the country’s total population of 9 million.
With posters proclaiming him “the safe choice in stormy times” amid an energy crisis pushing up inflation throughout Europe, the former Greens leader runs as an independent.
But he has the explicit or implicit backing of Austria’s major parties except the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), which has fielded its own candidate, Walter Rosenkranz, who is sitting in second place in the polls on 15% support.
Also standing for the presidency is 35-year-old punk rocker Dominik Wlazny, founder of the Beer Party named for its advocacy of the popular beverage.
Van der Bellen — who supporters affectionately call “the professor” — faced an unexpectedly tough fight in 2016, only winning the race in a runoff against an FPOe politician.
But the FPOe’s ratings have plummeted since 2019 after a corruption scandal brought down the government they were part of and eventually led to the resignation of then-chancellor Sebastian Kurz himself in 2021.
Analyst Thomas Hofer said it is “crucial” that Van der Bellen avoids a run-off like in 2016 when the campaign was “very divisive and hostile.”
“Van der Bellen stands for integrity and stability, which is very appreciated by voters given the multitude of crises that many European countries are currently facing,” Julia Partheymueller, a political analyst at the University of Vienna, told AFP.
Known for his trademark professorial manner, Van der Bellen will be Austria’s oldest head of state to be sworn in if he wins.
The presidential post, with a term of six years, is largely ceremonial.
Van der Bellen — also known as “Sascha,” a nickname that nods to his Russian roots — was born during World War II in Vienna to an aristocratic Russian father and an Estonian mother who fled Stalinism.
The arrival of the Red Army a year later forced the family to escape to the southern state of Tyrol, where Van der Bellen spent an “idyllic childhood.”
He studied economics at the University of Innsbruck and finished his Ph.D. in 1970 before going on to become dean of economics at the University of Vienna.
Polling stations open at 7 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) and close at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT) with exit polls published once they close.
At an election event last month, Alexandra Hoefenstock said she would vote Van der Bellen as he had managed the political crises well in his last stint in office.
“I hope for political stability,” the 38-year-old Vienna city worker said.