Reuters International

Former head of the Green Party Alexander Van der Bellen addresses a news conference after he announced to run for President in the 2016 Austrian presidential election in Vienna, Austria, January 10, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader/File Photo


By Kirsti Knolle and Shadia Nasralla

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian voters look set to shake the foundations of the centrist coalition government in a presidential election on Sunday and may give yet another boost to the anti-Islam Freedom Party as Europe's migrant crisis rumbles on.

The president plays a largely ceremonial role from offices in the imperial Hofburg palace. But he or she is head of state, swears in the chancellor, has the authority to dismiss the cabinet and is commander in chief of the military.

Members of the centre-left Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party have filled the job since it was first put to a popular vote in 1951. The two parties have ruled the nation of 8.7 million in tandem for most of the postwar era.

But Austrians are fed up with political cockfighting, including bickering between Social Democrat Chancellor Werner Faymann and conservative Vice-Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, and appear to be looking elsewhere for their new head of state.

The migrant crisis, which has seen around 100,000 asylum seekers arrive in Austria since last summer, has dominated the campaign from which two front-runners have emerged.

Alexander van der Bellen, a 72-year-old Greens Party veteran, has criticised the government for being too harsh in its treatment of asylum applicants, while right-wing Freedom Party (FPO) candidate Norbert Hofer says it has been too soft.

Hofer got 24 percent support in a recent poll by market researcher OGM, while van der Bellen got 25 percent as his lead over his rival shrinks.

If neither win a majority in the first round on April 24, a run-off vote will be held.

"Presidential elections are considered less important than other elections, and that's why people use them as a way to teach politicians a lesson," said Eva Zeglovits, opinion researcher at the IFES institute.

Hofer, a 45-year-old shooting fan, has called Europe's deal on migrants with Turkey "fatal" and does not want neutral Austria, a major destination for refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan, to become a land of immigration.

The candidates from the centrist parties, one in their 60s and the other their 70s, were floundering on about 11 and 15 percent in the OGM poll.

"Only the fear of forthcoming elections and the immigration crisis bind the two (centrist) parties together," independent political consultant Thomas Hofer said.

Recent polls for parliamentary elections, due to take place in 2018, show the Freedom Party above 30 percent, while the coalition parties would struggle to get a combined majority.

Van der Bellen has opposed the FPO's EU-critical stance and said he would not swear FPO head Heinz-Christian Strache in as chancellor.

The far-right FPO's criticism of the EU has also irked independent candidate Irmgard Griss - a former high court chief justice who headed a hard-hitting inquiry into Austria's biggest banking disaster and is the only woman running. She is polling at around 20 percent.

Trailing far behind in polls is 83-year-old retail magnate Richard Lugner, best known for repeated marriages to younger women and the eccentric lifestyle he flaunts in reality television shows.

(Editing by Hugh Lawson)


 Reuters International