VIENNA • All eyes will be on Austria this weekend when it could become the first European Union member to install a far-right president, as the influence of populist parties spreads across the bloc.
A crisis-packed year, fuelled by the refugee crisis and rising unemployment, has left the nation deeply polarised and pushed disgruntled voters away from traditional parties towards fringe groups.
The rift has found expression in tomorrow's tense run-off, which sees 45-year-old Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe) running against Green-backed economics professor Alexander van der Bellen, 72.
In last month's first round, Mr Hofer comfortably beat his rival by 35 per cent to 21 per cent. But the candidates fielded by the Social Democrats (SPOe) and the centre-right People's Party (OeVP), which form Austria's ruling coalition, were knocked out of the race with just 11 per cent.
Their dismal performance means that for the first time since 1945, the president will not come from one of the two main camps. And it raises a new risk of the winning candidate taking advantage of some of the role's never-before-used powers, such as firing the government - something Mr Hofer has already threatened to do if the coalition fails to take a tougher line on migrants or boost the faltering economy.
"The real danger is an FPOe president who dismisses the government to clear the way for a blue republic," Mr van der Bellen warned recently, referring to the party colour. He also accused his opponent of being little more than a "henchman" for FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache.
But Mr Hofer dismissed his remarks as "fear-mongering". "I've always said the government's dismissal would only be a last resort," he said. Nevertheless, the far-right contender also let slip a warning at a recent debate, declaring: "You'll see what's possible as a head of state."
Exceptionally, no opinion polls will be released ahead of the run-off after the first-round estimates proved disastrously wrong - predicting that Mr van der Bellen would defeat Mr Hofer.