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Austria may elect EU's first far-right head of state

The European Union could see its first far-right president if Norbert Hofer wins a second round run-off.

Austria could elect the European Union's first far-right head of state, with support for Freedom Party (FPO) candidate Norbert Hofer buoyed by security and employment fears sparked by the refugee crisis.

Opinion polls suggest Sunday's presidential race between Hofer and former Greens leader Alexander van der Bellen will be close. A far-right victory would resonate throughout the 28-member bloc where refugee flows driven by conflict in the Middle East and Africa have become a major political issue.

Austria took in 90,000 asylum seekers last year, more than 1 percent of its population, many of them shortly after it and neighboring Germany open their borders last autumn to people arriving on the continent.

The government has since clamped down on immigration and asylum, but that decision only fueled support for the far right, which was already capitalising on widespread frustration with the country's two traditional parties of government.

READ MORE: Austria adopts strict laws to keep out refugees

Sunday's run-off election comes four weeks after Hofer unexpectedly won the first round with 35 percent of the vote.

The president traditionally plays a largely ceremonial role but swears in the chancellor, can dismiss the cabinet and is commander in chief of the military.

Whoever wins, the election is likely to be a new high-water mark for Europe's resurgent far right, all the more significant for being in a relatively prosperous country with comparatively low, albeit rising, unemployment.

Van der Bellen, who came second in the first round on 21 percent, has accused his opponent of having an authoritarian view of the president's powers, saying Hofer wants to dismiss the government so snap parliamentary elections can be held.

The next parliamentary election is due in 2018, but with the eurosceptic FPO running first in opinion polls on more than 30 percent, it would be well placed to win a snap vote.

Hofer has said he would, as president, already have dismissed the government over its handling of the refugee crisis, but would not do so immediately if he became head of state.

READ MORE: Austria Chancellor Werner Faymann steps down

Tabloid newspaper reports of immigrants availing themselves of Austria's generous benefits, as well as of crimes in which immigrants have been suspects, have played into the FPO's hands.

"We do have a clash of two big arguments," political analyst Thomas Hofer said.

"The argument on the Freedom Party’s side is not so much the right wing argument but the anti-establishment argument. And on the other side you have the argument lets avoid a situation where we do have a Freedom Party President. Both play with emotions – play with fears and the question will be – who's going to be stronger."

A Gallup poll for the Oesterreich newspaper last weekend found Hofer ahead by a 53-47 margin based on 600 people surveyed. But it was a dead heat among those who said they were certain to vote, a key factor after nearly a third of eligible voters failed to cast ballots in the first round.

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