Austria has decisively rejected the possibility of the EU getting its first far-right head of state, instead electing a former leader of the Green party who said he would be an “open-minded, liberal-minded and above all a pro-European president”.
Alexander Van der Bellen, who ran as an independent, increased his lead over the far-right Freedom party candidate, Norbert Hofer, by a considerable margin from the original vote in May, which was annulled by the constitutional court due to voting irregularities.
Hofer conceded his defeat within less than half an hour of the first exit polls on Sunday, writing on Facebook: “I congratulate Alexander Van der Bellen for his success and ask all Austrians to pull together and work together.” The 45-year-old, who said he was “endlessly sad” and “would have liked to look after Austria”, confirmed that he would like to run again for the presidency in six years’ time.
The Freedom party secretary, Herbert Kickl, who has acted as Hofer’s campaign manager, said: “The bottom line is it didn’t quite work out. In this case the establishment – which pitched in once again to block, to stonewall and to prevent renewal – has won.”
Speaking in front of international press at the end of the evening, a visibly emboldened Van der Bellen said the election had not just been a repeat, “but a new election after the world around us has changed” with the Brexit vote in June and Donald Trump’s win in November. Referring to the colours of the Austrian flag, he described the result as “a red-white-and-red signal of hope and change to all the capitals in Europe”.
Werner Kogler, a Green party politician, described the result as a “small global turning of the tide in these uncertain, not to say hysterical and even stupid times”.
The endorsement of the retired economics professor was particularly emphatic in urban areas, with all of Vienna’s 23 districts showing up in Van der Bellen’s green than Hofer’s blue at the end of the night.
In May, Van der Bellen had won the election by only 30,863 votes and most commentators had expected a similarly close result this time around, with some predicting that a final outcome would not be determined until as late as the middle of the week.
In the end, the outcome of the almost year-long election campaign was clear within 10 minutes of the last polls closing. According to the public broadcaster ORF’s first exit poll, Van der Bellen had gained 53.4% of the vote with over 60% of voting districts counted – too strong a lead to be turned around by Hofer, who had 46.6% of the vote. By 7pm local time with almost 100% counted, Van der Bellen was still on 53.3% – an improvement of 3% on the May vote. In Vienna 65% supported Van der Bellen and only 35% voted for Hofer.
At the run-off vote in May, 50.35% of the population voted for Van der Bellen and 49.65% for Hofer. The Austrian public defied predictions that cold temperatures and fatigue with almost a year of campaigning would stop many from casting their votes: voter turnout was 73.8%, up from 72.65% in May.
After the first exit polls on Sunday evening, many politicians speculated that Britain’s vote to leave the European Union may have played a role in boosting Van der Bellen’s lead from May.
Hofer had promised to call a referendum on EU membership if the bloc of states took further steps towards integration, while also stating that he believed that Austria was better off in the EU. Van der Bellen had run his second campaign on a decisively pro-European ticket, with posters proclaiming that a vote for him meant “no to Öxit”.
Anton Mahdalik, a Freedom party member of the Vienna city council, criticised former Ukip leader Nigel Farage for contributing to the party’s defeat after claiming on Fox News that Hofer would hold a referendum on Austria leaving the EU. “That didn’t help us, it hindered us,” he said, saying that an overwhelming majority of Austrians support EU membership.
Hofer himself described Farage’s comments as a “crass misjudgment”, adding that “it doesn’t fill me with joy when someone meddles from outside”.
Reinhold Lopatka, head of the parliamentary group of the centre-right ÖVP, speculated on Sunday night that fears about Austria’s EU membership would probably have played a role in winning Van der Bellen votes in regional districts, most of which profited from EU subsidies. According to an ORF poll, 65% of Van der Bellen’s voters had cited his pro-EU attitudes as the main reason for rooting for the candidate.
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National, took to Twitter to cheer on the Freedom party, which sits in the same party bloc in the European parliament as hers, saying “the next parliamentary votes will be those of our victory”. The Freedom party, lead by Heinz-Christian Strache, is currently leading polls for the parliamentary vote ahead of the Social Democrats.
Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s deputy chancellor and the leader of the Social Democratic party, described the result as a “victory of reason over rightwing populism” and “a massive relief for the whole of Europe”.
Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, said: “After the Trump victory and the Brexit vote, Austria’s voters have shown that reason, tolerance and humanity are not foreign concepts for elections in the European Union. The result of the vote is good for Austria’s reputation and the values of the EU.”
More than 10,000 voting booths had opened across the country on a clear but cold day at 8am. The Freedom party candidate and his wife, Verena, had cast their votes in his home town of Pinkafeld in Burgenland, the eastern-most and least populous region of Austria. “I am calm and confident,” he told the press outside the voting booth.
Van der Bellen and his wife, Doris Schmidauer, voted at about 11am at a school in Vienna’s Mariahilf district.
In July this year Austria’s constitutional court had annulled the May result after an investigation revealed irregularities in the count of the vote in several constituencies. While the court had emphasised that there had been no evidence of the outcome of the election having been actively manipulated, the confirmed irregularities had affected a total of 77,926 votes that could have gone to either Hofer or Van der Bellen – enough, in theory, to change the outcome of the election.
With officials under clear instructions not to cut any corners to avoid another embarrassing recount, many experts had expected that a definitive result would not emerge until Monday, Tuesday, or possibly even Wednesday.
Austria’s presidency is neither an executive post, as it is in the USA, nor a purely representative role, as in Germany. Van der Bellen will not be able to propose laws, give directions to the cabinet, dismiss ministers or declare wars.
But if the presidency has in the past been above all a ceremonial role, it is because Van der Bellen’s predecessors have interpreted it that way. A 1929 reform expanding the president’s role, which was in tune with the authoritarian attitudes prevalent at the time, was never corrected after 1945.
Concerns over a Hofer win had grown after the Freedom party politician had hinted at his eagerness to explore the role’s limits, saying: “You will be surprised by what can be done [by a president].”
A win for Hofer would have also emboldened Geert Wilders’ Freedom party, which sits in the same far-right bloc in the European parliament as the Austrian Freedom party and hopes to emerge as the strongest force in next March’s Dutch elections. France’s Front National and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland have also been keenly studying their Austrian ally’s tactics before general elections in the continent’s two largest economies in 2017.
This Article has been cross-posted from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/04/far-right-party-concedes-defeat-in-austrian-presidential-election