Austria’s far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer has lost the country’s election.
On Facebook, Norbert Hofer described himself as “infinitely sad” and congratulated Alexander Van der Bellen, former head of the Greens, on his victory.
Although the president’s role is ceremonial in Austria, the poll had been seen as a sign of how well populist candidates might do elsewhere in Europe.
Alexander Van der Bellen called the result a vote for a “pro-European” Austria based on “freedom, equality and solidarity”.
Referring to the Austrian flag, he said a “red-white-red signal of hope and change, a red-white-red signal today goes from Austria to all the capitals of the EU.
“Finally, you know, I will try to be an open-minded, a liberal-minded and first of all a pro-European federal president of the Republic of Austria.”
December 4 vote was a re-run of May’s election, which Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly won but was marred by postal vote irregularities.
The Green Party’s said there had been significant changes – Brexit, the US election – since then, along with an increase in political interest – “an enormously broad electoral movement”.
Alexander Van der Bellen’s margin in May – 30,000 votes – had now increased tenfold.
EU leaders have been welcoming the result, which comes amid fears of populism undermining established parties.
European Council President Donald Tusk conveyed “wholehearted congratulations” while Germany’s Social Democrat Vice-Chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel, called the result “a clear victory for reason against right-wing populism”.
France’s President Francois Hollande thanked Austria for “choosing Europe and openness”.
Germany, France and the Netherlands all face elections next year in which anti-mainstream and anti-immigration parties are gaining ground.
A referendum under way in Italy is being closely followed for further signs of anti-establishment populism, with polls suggesting a setback for centre-left PM Matteo Renzi.
But the Austrian results surprised many.
Opinion polls in the run-up to December 4 vote suggested the result was too close to call.
Projections now give Alexander Van der Bellen roughly 53% to 46% for Norbert Hofer.
The election campaign ahead of December 4 vote was bitter, with both candidates trading insults and election posters being defaced.
Norbert Hofer, the candidate for the anti-immigration Freedom Party, conceded within minutes of the first projections in this rerun.
He thanked supporters and described himself as “infinitely sad that it hasn’t worked out”.
Norbert Hofer called on all Austrians to work together, “regardless of how we cast our ballots”.
He had campaigned on an anti-immigration platform amid disquiet in Austria at an influx of refugees. Establishment parties feared a victory for him could give a boost to the Freedom Party in the next parliamentary election.
Norbert Hofer had also suggested Austria could follow the UK’s Brexit with a referendum of its own but later appeared to backtrack, suggesting instead changing the bloc into a purely economic association.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s anti-immigration Front National, congratulated the Freedom Party on its campaign and looked forward to victory in Austria’s parliamentary poll.
Full official results are not expected until December 5 once postal ballots have been counted. Nearly 6.5 million Austrians were eligible to vote.
Austria is voting in a re-run of a presidential election which pits the leader of the far-right Freedom Party Norbert Hofer against former Green Party head Alexander Van der Bellen.
Last May’s vote was narrowly won by Alexander Van der Bellen, but the result was overturned by Austria’s highest court because of irregularities in the count.
If Norbert Hofer wins, he will become the EU’s first far-right head of state.
Opinion polls held in November suggest the vote is too close to call.
Although the president’s role is largely ceremonial in Austria, the vote is being watched as a barometer of how well populist candidates will do in upcoming elections.
France, the Netherlands and Germany all face elections in 2017 and anti-mainstream and anti-immigration parties are gaining ground.
The direction in which Austria will take with regard to the EU is also closely watched.
Norbert Hofer has campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, and initially said Austria could follow Britain’s vote to leave the EU with a referendum of its own. Alexander Van der Bellen has told Austrians it is proof that Norbert Hofer is in favor of “Oexit” (a reference to Austria’s name in German, Oesterreich).
However, at a party meeting on December 2, Norbert Hofer said opponents who repeatedly accused him of seeking a break with the EU were themselves damaging Austria.
“People who permanently talk about Oexit and accuse others of damaging the country with talk of Oexit should take a look at themselves and think about whether they are the ones damaging Austria the most,” he said.
In April 2015, Norbert Hofer won the first round of presidential elections by knocking out centrist candidates from parties that have dominated Austria since WWII.
Alexander Van der Bellen won the second round, but by just 31,000 votes. The Freedom Party then challenged the result which was then annulled due to irregularities.
The election campaign has been long and bitter, with both men trading insults, and with posters of both being defaced.
In the final TV debate on December 1, Norbert Hofer called Alexander Van der Bellen a liar 24 times, and had the insult returned three times, according to the Kurier newspaper.
Austria’s vote coincides with a closely-watched referendum in Italy, where center-left PM Matteo Renzi is staking his political future on a package of political reforms that is being challenged by the populist Five-Star Movement of Beppe Grillo.
Independent Alexander Van der Bellen has won Austria’s presidency after beating the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer by just 31,000 votes among the 4.64 million cast in May 22 election.
The victor accepted there was a “rift” but said: “We are two sides of the same coin. Together we make up Austria.”
Far-right Norbert Hofer had run on a Eurosceptic, anti-immigration platform.
If Norbert Hofer had won, he would have become the first far-right head of state of a EU nation.
In his victory speech, Alexander Van der Bellen, a pro-EU candidate backed by the Greens, said he accepted that many people believed that they were not being heard.
Austria’s newly-elected president said: “We need a different culture of dialogue and a political system which deals with people’s fears and anger.”
Alexander Van der Bellen, 72, said he would “work towards winning the trust of Norbert Hofer’s voters” and try to be “a non-partisan president for all the people in Austria”.
He added: “There’s been a lot of talk about this country’s rifts. But I think you can also interpret the split as a sign that we are two sides of the same coin and each side is as important as the other.”
Austria’s Chancellor Christian Kern said the vote was “worryingly close… and therefore it is of particular importance to us that… no voter feels like they have lost.”
Mainstream European politicians expressed relief at the result. Many nations have seen a surge in nationalist and anti-immigration parties amid the migrant crisis and economic uncertainty.
The Austrian presidency is largely a ceremonial post. But the president can dissolve the lower house of parliament and call elections without the need for permission from the ruling party.
Norbert Hofer said on his Facebook page it was a “sad day” but added: “Please don’t be disheartened. The effort in this election campaign is not wasted, but is an investment for the future.”
Alexander Van der Bellen is the first environmental activist to become Austrian president.
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