Reuters International

A election campaign poster of far right Freedom Party presidential candidate Norbert Hofer is seen near Nickelsdorf, Austria, May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

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By Michael Shields

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria is a short step from becoming the first European Union country to elect a far-right head of state, the result of mounting angst about living standards and Europe's migrant crisis triggering more than 100,000 asylum requests.

The anti-Islam and eurosceptic Freedom Party (FPO) grabbed more than a third of the vote in the first round of presidential elections on April 24.

The second round is on Sunday, pitting FPO candidate Norbert Hofer against independent Alexander van der Bellen, a former Greens party leader.

The two emerged after trouncing the governing Social Democrats (SPO) and their conservative coalition partners, triggering a party revolt that toppled SPO Chancellor Werner Faymann last week and hoisted railways boss Christian Kern to the chancellery.

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

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.

The two have exchanged bitter attacks in the run-up to the decisive vote that comes amid right-wing gains across Europe.

Hofer, 45, has called van der Bellen a "fascist Green dictator" for saying as president he would block any government led by anti-Europe FPO boss Heinz-Christian Strache.

Chain-smoking economics professor van der Bellen, 72, says Hofer is just itching for the chance to dismiss the cabinet and usher in a right-wing government.

Hofer, a former aviation engineer, is a soft-spoken but determined personality who worked his way out of the wheelchair to which he had to use after a paragliding accident in 2003.

The gun fan says his most important political project is to secure borders. Having voted in 1994 against joining the EU, he hews to Strache's view of Europe as a collection of fatherlands.

He has said he would not swear in a female minister wearing a headscarf, which he sees as a symbol for the oppression of women. "I tell it like it is," he is fond of saying.

EUROPEAN DIVIDE

Its warnings about the security threat it says Muslim migrants pose have hit the headlines of late, but the FPO has been on the rise for years, not only due to immigration.

Fears about employment and security, as well as a sense that society is moving in the wrong direction, have helped the party gain ground in elections since 2002. It now regularly tops opinion polls with more than 30 percent support.

"The basic difference between van der Bellen and Hofer is their view of Europe," said Anton Pelinka, a political scientist at Central European University in Budapest.

The pro-EU van der Bellen is a typical western European Green who draws many women voters. Hofer's supporters tend to be less well-educated men, Pelinka said.

Once led by firebrand populist Joerg Haider, the FPO presents itself as the underdog taking on the two big parties, although it is in coalitions in two of Austria's nine provinces.

The conservative People's Party went into a national coalition with Haider's Freedom Party in 2000, prompting some countries to shun Austria. But now there is even a debate within the SPO about whether to join forces with the FPO.

(Additonal reporting by Francois Murphy, Kirsti Knolle, Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich and Shadia Nasralla Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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