Austria came close to becoming the first European Union country to elect a far-right head of state as postal ballots on Monday decided a knife-edge presidential vote in favour of the anti-immigration candidate‘s environmentalist opponent.
The results were awaited nervously by governments across Europe, where populist anti-immigration parties have surged over the past year on concerns over a refugee influx, continued weak economic growth and high unemployment.
After the election was too close to call on Sunday, a count of absentee votes on Monday thrust 72-year-old Alexander van der Bellen past anti-immigration Freedom Party rival Norbert Hofer and into the largely ceremonial post of president.
The Freedom Party and its European allies expressed disappointment at the defeat but delight at the record support from Austrian voters, while traditional parties of government breathed a sigh of relief.
“Fifty percent confidence in Norbert Hofer is a gigantic showing,” his campaign manager Herbert Kickl told public broadcaster ORF, toning down comments before the election that suggested the Freedom Party (FPO) might contest the count.
“One thing is clear: there are many Norbert Hofers in the Freedom Party and we are very, very well placed for parliamentary elections - whenever they come,” he added.
The Interior Ministry count gave van der Bellen, a former Greens party leader, 50.3 percent of the vote, compared to 49.7 percent for Hofer. The margin of victory was just over 31,000 out of nearly 4.5 million valid votes cast.
One factor behind the strong FPO showing was dissatisfaction with the two centrist parties that have dominated politics in Austria, often by governing in coalition, as they do now, and carving up top institutions between them over the decades.
Opinion polls in the Alpine republic of 8.5 million people regularly suggest the FPO would win parliamentary elections if held now. The current government’s term runs until 2018.
“This is just the beginning,” FPO boss Heinz-Christian Strache said on his Facebook page.
Van der Bellen said he planned to unite Austria after its almost dead-even split in the vote.
“We are the same,” he said in his first speech as president-elect. “There are two halves that make up Austria. The one half is just as important as the other.” (Reuters)