Vienna: Austrian President Heinz Fischer was expected to win a second term in elections on Sunday, but all eyes were on how well a far-right politician who has challenged the country`s anti-Nazi law will do.
Polls predict a clear win for Fischer, a Social Democrat, with Barbara Rosenkranz from the anti-foreigner and anti-European Union Freedom Party coming in a distant second. Rudolf Gehring of the tiny Austrian Christian Party is expected to bring up the rear in the running for the largely ceremonial post.
Fischer, 71, is known for his caution and diplomacy. He served as science minister and held various leadership positions in his party and in Parliament before winning the presidency on April 25, 2004.
Rosenkranz, in contrast, has caused controversy for suggesting that Austria`s law banning the glorification of the Nazis is not in line with the country`s Constitution and hinders freedom of expression.
While she recently formally declared support for the law after pressure from the publisher of the country`s most widely read newspaper, her candidature remains controversial. She also came under fire recently for a vague response to a question about Nazi gas chambers, but has since clearly acknowledged their existence.
"It`s such a scandal for the country," said Holocaust survivor Rudolf Gelbard on a recent afternoon as he watched students and scouts spread sheets of paper bearing the names of wartime Austria`s Nazi victims on the square outside the presidential palace in what was billed as "a history lesson" for Rosenkranz.
The 51-year-old mother of 10, whose husband was part of a far-right political party that was banned for being too radical, said her comments on the country`s anti-Nazi law were misinterpreted by her critics and the media.
"Of course I condemn the monstrous atrocities — I`ve never done anything else," Rosenkranz said in reference to the mass killings of Jews and others by the Nazis.
"I consider myself very values-oriented and closely linked to my homeland," she said, when asked to describe herself.
Analysts say Rosenkranz`s candidacy was initially meant as a test run for local elections in the Austrian capital this fall but backfired amid negative publicity. Even Freedom Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache — who wants to become the mayor of Vienna — distanced himself from her after predicting early on that she could net as much as 35 percent of the vote.
A recent opinion poll published by the magazine Profil gave Fischer 82 percent, followed by 13 percent for Rosenkranz and 5 percent for Gehring. Some analysts say Rosenkranz could snag up to 20 percent amid low voter turnout and a larger than normal number of invalid ballots due in large part to the absence of a People`s Party candidate.
While the opposition Greens endorsed Fischer, the People`s Party — which runs a coalition government with the Social Democrats — did not. Some party officials even went so far as to suggest casting blank ballots.
"This is a huge opportunity for us," Strache said in a statement urging supporters to go to the polls. "Every single vote counts."