Supporters of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) in Vienna on May 22, 2016
Vienna (AFP) - Austria was on Monday counting hundreds of thousands of postal votes to resolve a knife-edge election that could make it the first EU country with a far-right anti-immigration president.
Preliminary results late Sunday put Norbert Hofer, presented as the friendly and moderate face of the late Joerg Haider's Freedom Party (FPOe), 3.8 percentage points ahead in the race for the largely-ceremonial post.
But this paper-thin margin of just 144,006 votes could well be erased once around 700,000 postal votes are counted, with projections indicating that former Greens chief Alexander van der Bellen might emerge as victor in the final furlong.
A final result is expected between 1500 and 1700 GMT, said interior ministry election official Robert Stein.
FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache has already warned that a tie-breaking postal vote in favour of van der Bellen would be "very questionable", raising fears the party could contest the final result.
- 'Gladiator' gun enthusiast -
Gun enthusiast Hofer, 45, has tapped into unease about the record number of asylum-seekers at the height of Europe's migrant crisis, with his typical supporters made up of poorly educated working-class men.
Around seven out of 10 working-class voters plumped for Hofer.
But this self-proclaimed "gladiator" has also toned down the FPOe's message to appeal to voters disillusioned with the centrist parties in the current government that have dominated national politics since 1945.
"I'm happy that we have finally rid ourselves of the cliches attached to the party," said supporter Henriette Hakl at the FPOe's beery post-election party on Sunday evening.
"I get offended when someone says I'm from the extreme-right. I'm a post-war child, I love life but I want order in my country."
Hofer's winning strategy has mirrored the success of other fringe political figures across Europe, as well as further afield as seen with the success of Donald Trump in the United States.
In a first round of voting on April 24, candidates of the Social Democrats (SPOe) and their centre-right coalition partners People's Party (OeVP), were thrown out with just 11 percent of the vote.
Their failure means that for the first time since 1945, the two parties are having to watch the runoff from the sidelines. This was the final straw for Werner Faymann of the SPOe, who quit as chancellor on May 9.
His successor, railways boss Christian Kern, now has two years to win voters back from the arms of the far-right -- which is leading in the polls with more than 30 percent -- before the next scheduled general election.
- 'Election thriller' -
Whoever wins the race will face the difficult task of uniting a polarised nation.
"The main rift is ... around issues like the EU, migrants and trust in the system," political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP.
Few observers thought the professorial and somewhat dishevelled Van der Bellen, 72, could beat his polished younger rival after lagging 14 points behind him in the first round.
"Very few people thought I could catch up," Van der Bellen said late Sunday.
"But in the last 14 days there has been such a momentum among voters -- musicians, actors, workers, totally different people across all generations, professions and all sections of society."
Karin Cvrtila from polling institute OGM called his surprise success an "election thriller".
"He has really recovered in the past couple of weeks, partly because of a good campaign," she told AFP.
The FPOe forced Austria into international and European isolation when it forged an alliance with the OeVP in 2000.
This time, however, observers note there could be less of a backlash in light of surging support for populist parties elsewhere in Europe.
- Unpredictable leader -
But other dangers lurk.
Since the end of World War II, the Austrian head of state has performed a largely ceremonial role in the gilded halls of the Hofburg, the former Habsburg palace in Vienna.
However, the new president could potentially shake things up, by using hitherto untapped powers to dissolve parliament or fire the government.
"You'll be amazed what a president is capable of," Hofer said during the campaign.
The far-right contender -- who is also a lower house leader in the Austrian parliament -- stressed that his "personal views and values" would not prevent him from being a "non-partisan president".
"It's difficult to say what kind of leader Hofer will be -- whether he'll stay impartial like he does in parliament or add the FPOe imprint," political expert Hubert Sickinger told AFP.