Roland Oliphant and Balazs Cseko, Telegraph, December 5, 2016
Austria’s voters have resoundingly rejected anti-immigration and eurosceptic Norbert Hofer’s bid to become the European Union’s first far-right president, a result greeted with relief from centrist politicians across the continent.
Instead, Greens-backed independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen swept 53.3 percent of Sunday’s vote against 46.7 percent for his rival from the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe), according to public television projections.
“Today it is not an exaggeration if I say that today we see a red-white-red–the flag of Austria–as a signal of hope and change. A red-white-red signal from Austria to all the capitals of the European Union,” Van der Bellen, 72, said in Vienna.
The official result of what has been an ugly and polarising election in normally peaceable Austria, lasting 11 months, was not expected until Monday. But on Sunday an “incredibly sad” Hofer conceded defeat.
“I congratulate Alexander Van der Bellen on his success and call on all Austrians to stick together and work together,” Hofer said on Facebook.
The result ends a bitterly fought presidential election that threatened to deal a further blow to the liberal European consensus that has prevailed since the end of the Second World War.
His victory would have been widely seen as a blow to the post-War consensus of the same magnitude as Britain’s vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president last month.
It would also have been hailed by other far-right movements like Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands.
European liberals breathed a sigh of relief when Mr Van der Bellen won the election in May by 31,000 votes, but Austria’s supreme court annulled the result and ordered a re-run following irregularities during the vote count.
Mr Van der Bellen appeared to have increased that margin of victory on Sunday night.
Anton Mahdalik, a Freedom Party member of the Vienna city council, called the result “a great success even though we lost.”
“As a lone party against the Social Democrats, the Popular Party, the Greens, and others, and the establishment media, we still took 2.2 million votes,” he said in an interview at the party’s Vienna headquarters shortly after Mr Hofer conceded.
“We are now in pole position for the parliamentary elections in 2018,” he said.
Mr Mahdalik singled out Nigel Farage, the former Ukip leader, for contributing to the party’s defeat after he said on Fox News on Friday that Mr Hofer would hold a referendum on Austria leaving the European Union.
“That didn’t help us, it hindered us,” he said, saying that an overwhelming majority of Austrians support EU membership.
Casting his vote in his home town of Pinkafeld earlier on Sunday, Mr Hofer ruled out a referendum and said: “I would ask Mr Farage not to interfere in Austria’s internal affairs.”
“It is not something I want. We need to build a stronger union,” he said. He said he would oppose Turkish membership or further centralisation of the EU.
Mr Hofer pledged to build stronger ties with Vladimir Putin’s Russia and said he would also head to both Washington and Moscow if he won the presidency.
“I talked with Steve King yesterday, and he told me that I should visit Washington very soon. But I was also speaking to the ambassador of Russia, and he told me too I should visit Moscow soon,” he said.
“For me it could be important to help build a friendship between Russia and Washington,” he said.
The Freedom Party was one of several far right parties to send observers to the referendum Russia used to justify its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and a victory for Mr Hofer would have been seen as a blow to the EU sanctions regime against Mr Putin’s government.
Recent opinion polls put Mr Hofer and Mr Van der Bellen neck and neck. Many observer expected a knife-edge count lasting late into the night.
Mr Hofer, a smooth-talking 45-year old who likes to be seen toting a hand-gun, has seen his poll numbers surge on the back of discontent at the Austrian government’s initial open-door policy to refugees fleeing the war in Syria.
In 2015, 90,000 asylum seekers entered Austria–the equivalent of one percent of the population of this country of 8.7 million.
Supporters also point to a high unemployment rate and discontent with infighting in the Social Democratic and Austrian Popular Party, the mainstream centre left and centre right parties, to explain his rise.
In keeping with other populist nationalist parties across Europe, he promised to “get rid of the dusty establishment,” establish closer ties with Russia, and suggested he might offer an “Auxit” referendum on EU membership.
Mr Hofer has been called the “friendly face” of the Freedom Party, and is credited with helping it shed some of the less palatable aspects of its image.
However critics say his eloquent, media-friendly performances mask an ultra-right wing background harking back to the party’s foundation by former Nazis in the 1950s.
He has been seen wearing the blue-corn flower, a symbol of German nationalism linked to the Nazis, was responsible for drafting a Freedom Party manifesto which has taken the party back to its nationalist roots, focusing on “identity”–a term seen as code for native Austrians, not immigrants or their children.