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Who is Norbert Hofer, and why does he matter?

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Who is Norbert Hofer, and why does he matter?
Hofer (r) with FPÖ party leader H.C. Strache. Photo: Hofer Instagram
19:43 CEST+02:00
Austria's far-right has a new golden boy in the shape of Norbert Hofer, a smooth-talking gun enthusiast who sent shock waves through the political establishment by defying polls and shooting to the top in Sunday's first round of a presidential ballot.

Described as the "friendly face" of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), the 45-year-old caught everyone by surprise, not least the country's centrist parties whose candidates failed to even make it into the runoff on May 22.

Many voters disgruntled with the ruling coalition, made up of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and conservative People's Party (ÖVP), flocked to Hofer and his promise of "putting Austria first".

Well-dressed and soft-spoken, the self-proclaimed Margaret Thatcher fan pushed traditional FPÖ themes like anti-immigration with a smile, using more moderate rhetoric than party leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

"Hofer could set a new trend for the FPÖ by being so unbelievably moderate in his tone and coming across as so nice in public appearances... It fits into the FPÖ's strategy to target the middle ground of the electorate," political expert Thomas Hofer told AFP.

Hofer's polished campaign, based on the slogan "Unspoilt, honest, good", proved a hit with the masses, earning him a whopping 35 percent in the vote's first round -- the FPÖ best-ever result at federal level since 1945.

The ex-deputy parliamentary speaker, who at first refused to join the race because he felt "too young", also stands a good chance of beating his runoff opponent, ex-Green party leader Alexander van der Bellen.

At 72, the respected economics professor cuts a somewhat tired figure next to the FPOe's strapping new star, who often walks with a cane after a paraglide accident -- something Hofer highlighted during his campaign as a sign of his sheer determination and will.

"He always gives 100 percent. Already as a child, he wanted to do everything right," his mother Gertraud told Austrian media.

Strache's second man

The trained aeronautical engineer has had a slow but steady climb to the top of the FPÖ leadership the past two decades.

Born on March 2, 1970 into a middle-class family, Hofer grew up as the son of a local ÖVP councillor in Burgenland, the country's least prosperous state close to the Hungarian border.

After a short stint working for the now-defunct Lauda Air airline, Hofer joined the FPÖ's Burgenland branch in 1994 and became party secretary two years later.

Moving up through the ranks, he later became a close advisor to Strache who took over the party reigns from the charismatic Joerg Haider in 2005.

Under the new leadership, the party initially grew more extremist and re-introduced racist slogans.

When this failed to translate into votes, Hofer, along with FPÖ Secretary General Herbert Kickl, advised Strache to adopt a more moderate course and focus on social welfare and purchasing power, to steal support from the traditional parties as the economic crisis hit.

The move paid off, with the FPÖ now consistently scoring more than 30 percent in polls ahead of the next scheduled general election in 2018.

'Love to shoot'

But despite his amiable appearance, Hofer is a true-blue member of the far-right who has repeatedly reminded the electorate that he defended "Freedom party interests".

"Islam has no place in Austria," he warned voters, while also threatening to fire the government if it failed to get tougher on migrants.

The Oesterreich tabloid described him as "a kind, nice protest politician who wraps the FPÖ's brutal declarations against refugees in soft language".


Norbert Hofer is a regular shooter at gun ranges with his Glock.  Photo: Hofer Instagram

An avid social media user, his Instagram account shows the father-of-four -- who has admitted to occasionally carrying a Glock gun in public -- at a shooting range with his children.

"I just love to shoot," he declared in a recent interview, adding that he understood the rising trend of gun owners in Austria "given the current uncertainties".

His fans include Austrian extreme sports daredevil Felix Baumgartner who hailed Hofer's young age, saying he "was the only one able to represent Austria appropriately".

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