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Austrians to Elect New President Sunday - 2004-04-24

Austrians elect a new president on Sunday, and for the first time, a woman has a chance of winning. The candidates differ on whether Austria should retain its neutrality.

Around six million Austrians can vote in Sunday's election to choose a successor to President Thomas Klestil of the conservative People's Party. He has held the mainly ceremonial post for 12 years, and cannot stand for a third term.

The People's Party candidate is 55-year-old Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Austria's foreign minister.

Her campaign manager, Florian Krenkel, spoke to VOA at the final election rally in downtown Vienna.

"She has a vast international experience," Mr. Krenkel said. "She's been foreign minister for a couple of years. She has an international network, and she's a real sympathetic woman. She's open and likes the people, and she has a lot of humanitarian engagements, and so I think she's great for president."

Ms. Ferrero-Waldner's opponent for the presidency is 65-year-old Heinz Fischer, a Social Democrat and currently deputy speaker of parliament.

Mr. Fischer is a strong supporter of Austria's traditional neutrality. He has won the support of the country's leftwing for his opposition to the far-right Freedom Party populist Jörg Haider, known to be an admirer of Adolf Hitler. Mr. Haider has declared his support for Ms. Ferrero-Waldner, which some see as a mixed blessing.

Opinion polls put Mr. Fischer narrowly in the lead.

But one member of parliament, Erwin Rasinger, says whoever wins will have little more than symbolic powers.

"A president in Austria has not much power, but he has a great moral power," said Erwin Rasinger. "For example, social themes, themes of the economy, themes of pensions, themes of how we go on in science."

If Ms. Ferrero-Walder wins, she would become Austria's first-ever woman president. But one vote she will not get is that of her husband, Francisco, who as a Spanish citizen cannot take part in the ballot.