Austrian rightwinger concedes defeat

VIENNA, AUSTRIA - MAY 22: Norbert Hofer, presidential candidate of the right-wing populist Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Oesterreichs, or FPOe), greets supporters at the FPOe election party following initial poll results during Austrian presidential elections on May 22, 2016 in Vienna, Austria. The FPOe is facing off against the Austrian Green Party and its presidential candidate, Alexander Van der Bellen. The FPOe's recent success is part of a larger trend across Europe in which right-wing parties have gained ground, in part due to public unease over the large influx of refugees and migrants over the past year and a half. (Photo by Jan Hetfleisch/Getty Images)©Getty

Norbert Hofer with his supporters

Austria has voted narrowly against a rightwing nationalist after a closely fought presidential election that highlighted the political fallout from Europe’s immigration crisis.

Norbert Hofer, the Freedom party candidate, conceded defeat on Facebook to Alexander Van der Bellen, his Green opponent, on Monday afternoon.

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Shortly after the Facebook announcement, official figures revealed that Mr Van der Bellen won the election by 50.3 per cent to Mr Hofer’s 49.7 per cent.

Thanking his supporters, Mr Hofer said: “Of course I am sad today”, adding that his party’s election efforts were an “investment in the future”.

The election outcome was only settled after the counting of postal votes a day after polls closed. Mr Van der Bellen, an economic professor whose parents were refugees from the Soviet Union, campaigned for an open Austria with strong European ties. That contrasted with the nationalist “Austria first” manifesto of Mr Hofer, who urged tougher controls on immigration and asylum seekers.

Mainstream parties in other European countries have in the past shunned Austria’s Freedom party, which was founded in the 1950s by former Nazis. Nevertheless, its strong showing in the presidential election has alarmed establishment politicians in other countries.

“The fact that he came within a whisker of becoming head of state is a huge deal,” said Heather Grabbe, European politics expert at the European University Institute in Florence. Mr Hofer’s strong poll showing, she said, would be a “big boost” for Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front who is following a similar strategy ahead of the country’s presidential election next year.

Mr Van der Bellen, 72, ran as an independent but is a former spokesman for the Green party. Although he projected himself in his campaign as a “co-operative” alternative to the authoritarian Freedom party, his move into Vienna’s Hofburg palace could still increase political tensions within Austria if he seeks to create a rival power centre to Austria’s government and parliament.

“Pressure on the government to introduce serious reforms has increased,” said Franz Schellhorn, director of Agenda Austria.

Since 1945, the Austrian president has been either a candidate of the centre-left Social Democrats or the centre-right People’s party. The two parties currently form a “grand coalition” government. But support for both has declined as Austria’s economy underperformed European rivals and voters fretted about seemingly uncontrolled inflows of refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria.

Mr Van der Bellen has said he would resist appointing a Freedom party candidate as Austria’s chancellor. Constitutional experts have cast doubt on whether he could really oppose a popularly elected government coalition, however.

The high-stakes drama in an Austrian presidential election, which usually passes unnoticed to the outside world, has challenged the country’s reputation for political predictability. Gerhart Holzinger, head of Austria’s constitutional court, said on Monday that in future postal votes should be counted on election day to avoid a power vacuum. “Waiting 24 hours unnecessarily is democratically worrisome,” he said.

Mr Hofer’s campaign played on popular fears about Islamic influence over Austrian culture, and sought to portray the Freedom party as pro-Israeli. But the softly spoken former aircraft technician, who has walked with a cane since a paragliding accident, won support for a party programme aimed at upending Austria’s traditional two-party system and protecting Austrian jobs.

He was “someone who softens the very harsh message of the Freedom party,” said Thomas Hofer, political analyst in Vienna. “It wasn’t only the anti-refugee message. It was also an anti-establishment message.”

Initially, Austria sided with German chancellor Angela Merkel in supporting the thousands of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. Most passed through Austria and on to Germany or other destinations, such as Sweden. Nevertheless, the strain on Austria’s infrastructure and voters’ fears that the government had lost control over the inflows forced a policy reversal.

In the first round of the presidential election on April 24, the Social Democrat and People’s party candidates were pushed into fourth and fifth place.

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