Austrian Freedom Party Loses Presidential Vote to Van der Bellen

  • Freedom Party’s Hofer concedes to independent Van der Bellen
  • Germany’s Gabriel hails ‘victory of reason’ over populism

European Populism Suffers a Setback

Austrians elected a Green Party-backed economics professor as their next president, spurning the appeal of an anti-immigration nationalist who campaigned to weaken ties to the European Union.

With all regular votes counted, Alexander Van der Bellen defeated Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party by 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent after Sunday’s repeat run-off election to the mainly ceremonial presidency. While mail-in ballots will only be counted on Monday, Van der Bellen’s margin of victory was too great to change the outcome, and Hofer conceded defeat.

Van der Bellen, 72, said that he stood for the “old values” of freedom, equality and solidarity. He also signaled that he wanted to preside over a more active presidency, urging a focus on policies such as efforts to tackle unemployment.

Austria sent a “good signal” today “to the capitals of the European Union,” Van der Bellen, who ran as an independent, said in an interview with public broadcaster ORF. “You can actually win elections with a pro-European position.” 

Together with a referendum in Italy also being held on Sunday, the Austrian vote was seen as a bellwether for populist sentiment in Europe after the U.K.’s Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election to the U.S. presidency. Geert Wilders, the anti-Islam Dutch politician, offered Hofer his commiserations on Twitter, as did French National Front leader Marine Le Pen. Nigel Farage, the former head of the U.K. Independence Party, had cited Hofer’s EU-skeptic stance as further evidence of the pressures buffeting the EU “construction.”

German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who heads the Social Democratic Party, hailed Van der Bellen’s win as a “victory of reason against right-wing populism,” according to an interview with Bild newspaper. EU President Donald Tusk extended his “wholehearted congratulations” to Van der Bellen in an e-mailed statement.

Year of Acrimony

The result defied projections of a razor-tight finish and ends an acrimonious year of campaign politics that polarized Austria. Van der Bellen, who pledged to prevent anti-EU forces from forming a government, now has to heal the rifts exposed over immigration and economic inequality.

It’s the first time in 70 years the country has elected a presidential candidate outside the Social Democratic or Austrian People’s Party, after both the established parties were eliminated in earlier rounds of voting. It’s also the first time that a Green Party leader has won a popular election in Europe to become head of state since the global environmental movement began.

Van der Bellen narrowly squeezed out Hofer in the first presidential runoff on May 22, but the result was overturned by the Constitutional Court because of irregularities in counting mail-in ballots. Austria’s Interior Ministry showed Van der Bellen won more rural support in Sunday’s repeat vote, and also took key regions in the industrial heartland of Upper Austria as well as in the mountains of Tirol.

Opening Doors

The result is a rebuff to some analysts who predicted Hofer would benefit from the same nationalist forces that propelled Trump to the presidency last month. Hofer campaigned on his ability to court favor inside a Trump White House as well as with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I’m asking my voters to accept that in a democracy, the voter is always right,” said Hofer. He added that he’s looking forward to the next round of national elections where he’ll stand by Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who accused Van der Bellen of orchestrating Sunday’s victory with a “massive campaign of fear.”

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, a Social Democrat who warned last week that the EU must reform or slip into the abyss, struck a more conciliatory tone.

“Alexander Van der Bellen will be a good partner for an open-minded, future-oriented policy of chances and hopes,” Kern said. “To the voters of Norbert Hofer, I say nobody should feel like a loser today. We’re all Austria.”

— With assistance by Rainer Buergin, and Matthias Wabl

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