VIENNA: Norbert Hofer, who was formally elected on Saturday to lead Austria´s far-right party into national elections, has gained a reputation as the friendly face of the Freedom Party (FPOe) in contrast to some of its firebrands.
But sceptics say that behind the grin lurks a steely, dyed-in-the-wool ideologue.
In the run-up to national elections on September 29, Hofer has declared he wants to “put his stamp” on the party and see it in government again in a renewed coalition with the conservative People´s Party (OeVP).
It remains to be seen whether he can unify party hardliners behind him, as well as overcome a corruption scandal that led to the resignation of his predecessor and the collapse of the previous OeVP-FPOe government.
Hofer grew up in the city of Pinkafeld in Burgenland state, near the border with Hungary.
His father was a businessman and involved in the OeVP, which formed the coalition with the FPOe in 2017, and again looks set to win the most votes.
Even now, the softly-spoken aircraft engineer with a disarming smile maintains his links to Pinkafeld, where
he is regularly seen cycling, shopping and visiting the same kebab restaurant.
A Cessna air plane that the 48-year-old bought with two others last year is kept there, too.
Hofer himself walks with a cane after a paragliding accident, but he remains a keen amateur flier.
Politically, Hofer — most recently transport minister and long touted as a leadership contender within the far-right party — was the Freedom Party candidate in the 2016 presidential election.
In the end, he lost the race for the largely ceremonial post to a former leader of the Green party, but he turned in a strong performance, surprising many — including some in his own party.
Christian Rainer, editor-in-chief of weekly magazine Profil, once described Hofer as “wolf in sheep´s clothing”. This time again, he is campaigning with slick posters that show him with the slogan “loyal to the homeland”, and has returned to the party´s tradition of anti-immigration and anti-Islam rhetoric.
“Islam is not part of our culture, not part of our history and will never be so,” he said during Saturday´s party convention.
Hofer, who wrote the FPOe´s party programme, also hailed his “long-term friendship” with Hungary´s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban during a visit to Budapest this week. A father-of-four on his second marriage, he first took on an official role in the Freedom Party in 1994 in his home state, before starting to work at a national level two years later. He became Freedom Party deputy head in 2005.
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