Postal votes from Austria’s presidential elections have now been counted, with the right-wing candidate losing out by 31,000 votes. Independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, whose pro-EU campaign was backed by the Greens, has won the majority, preventing Norbert Hofer from becoming the European Union’s first “far-right” candidate.
Hofer, the leader of the losing Freedom Party said the defeat was a “sad day,” and asked voters to not be “disheartened,” claiming “the effort in this election campaign is not wasted, but is an investment for the future.”
The Austrian interior ministry said Mr. Van der Bellen had 2,254,484 votes compared to Mr. Hofer’s 2,223,458, which equals 50.3% to 49.7%. Van der Bellen, 72, is officially an independent candidate but has led the country’s Greens for the last 11 years. Some European Green politicians have labelled the leader as “the world’s first Green head of state.”
“People can be different and still treat each other respectfully,” said Mr. Van der Bellen after his victory was announced.
The rhetoric used throughout both campaigns was brutal, with Mr. Van der Bellen stating that he did not want Austria to be led by a “populist right-wing, pan-Germanic fraternity,” and urging voters to vote for him – even if they disliked his politics.
Herbert Kickl, campaign leader for the Freedom Party, said the small percentage loss was significant and showed a new trend in Austrian politics; “There are many Norbert Hofers in the Freedom Party and we are very, very well placed for parliamentary elections.”
The Freedom Party was founded in 1956 as a successor to the short-lived Federation of independents, and by Anton Reinthaller, former Nazi Minister of Agriculture and SS Officer. The populist party focuses on anti-immigration, national conservatism, and is heavily sceptical of the European Union.
Austria has seen over 90,000 migrants and refugees claim asylum in the last 12 months, which accounts for nearly one percent of the country’s entire population, causing anti-immigrant sentiment to run high. The Freedom Party used this to its advantage and ran an anti-immigration campaign.
The selection of one independent candidate and one right-wing candidate represents a historic shift in the make-up of Austrian politics. For the first time since the Second World War, both of centrist parties were knocked out in the first round of voting. Chancellor Werner Faymann resigned after he lost the support of his centre-left Social Democratic Party colleagues – the party that has seen decades of governing Austria.