A leftwing, independent candidate has narrowly prevented Austria from becoming the first EU country to elect a far-right head of state after a knife-edge contest ended with his opponent conceding defeat. Alexander Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor backed by the Green party, defeated Norbert Hofer, of the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic Freedom party, a day after polling closed and only when more than 700,000 postal ballots – about 10% of available votes – were taken into account. The Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial role but the outcome became hugely symbolic. Mirroring the rise of populist parties across Europe, the Freedom party exploited anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of the continent’s refugee crisis and, despite Hofer’s narrow defeat, the election has left a deep split over the direction Austria should now take.
The Austrian interior ministry confirmed that Hofer’s final score was 49.7%, against 50.3% for Van der Bellen, the son of two refugees, after postal votes were counted.
In a post on Facebook, Hofer wrote: “Dear friends, I thank you for your fantastic support. Of course today I am sad. I would have liked to have watched out for you as president of our wonderful country.”
Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green party who announced after the result that he would put his party membership on hold during his presidency, is the EU’s second head of state with a Green party background after Latvia last year elected Green politician Raimonds Vējonis as president.