Austria Chooses Pro-EU President in Rebuff to Freedom Party

  • Former Green head Van der Bellen defeats Freedom Party’s Hofer
  • Germany’s Gabriel hails ‘victory of reason’ over populism

European Populism Suffers a Setback

Austria’s president-elect Alexander Van der Bellen pledged to project a pro-European stance to the world after he saw off a challenge by a candidate from the far-right Freedom Party in a sign of the limits to the populist surge buffeting the European Union.

Van der Bellen’s victory over Norbert Hofer in Sunday’s repeat presidential runoff was hailed by political leaders from Brussels to Berlin as a blow against nationalism, after Hofer ran on an anti-immigration ticket and advocated a diminished EU with fewer powers.

Austria sent “a signal of hope and positive change throughout Europe,” Van der Bellen, 72, said in a statement broadcast live on public television station ORF. It’s “a signal that will be taken in and carefully analyzed” in the EU’s capitals, he said: “You can actually win elections with a pro-European position.”

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The Austrian ballot was seen as a bellwether for populist sentiment in Europe after the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s surprise election to the U.S. presidency. French National Front leader Marine Le Pen and Dutch anti-Islam politician Geert Wilders -- both of whom will contest national elections next year -- offered Hofer their commiserations on Twitter. Nigel Farage, the U.K. Independence Party’s former head, earlier cited Hofer’s EU-skeptic stance as further evidence of the pressures buffeting the EU “construction.”

Sunday’s referendum in Italy revived the anti-establishment mood, as Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned following a heavy defeat.

Austrian voters spurned Hofer’s nationalistic appeal in favor of Van der Bellen, a Green Party-backed economics professor who ran for the mainly ceremonial presidency as an independent.

With all regular votes counted, Van der Bellen took 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent for Hofer. While mail-in ballots will only be counted on Monday, Van der Bellen’s margin of victory was too great to change the outcome, prompting Hofer to concede.

EU President Donald Tusk quickly extended his “wholehearted congratulations” to Van der Bellen, and German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who heads the Social Democratic Party, hailed the result in an interview with Bild newspaper as a “victory of reason against right-wing populism.” French President Francois Hollande said that “the Austrian people made the choice of Europe, and openness,” according to the Associated Press.

“It’s an encouraging sign that the power of common sense can defeat hate, anger, nationalism and lies in our democracies,” Thomas Strobl, a deputy chairman of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, told ARD television. “On balance it’s a good sign” as regards German federal elections in the fall of 2017, he said.

For Austria, the result defied projections of a razor-tight finish and ends an acrimonious year of campaign politics that polarized the country. 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.

In his victory address, he said that he stood for the “old values” of freedom, equality and solidarity, and signaled that he wanted to run a more active presidency, urging a focus on policies such as efforts to tackle unemployment.

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.

Van der Bellen said that his margin of victory was probably about 300,000 votes, 10 times the margin of May’s disputed contest. TV projections including mail votes gave him 53.3 percent to Hofer’s 46.7 percent.

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 on an “America First” ticket 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,” Hofer said as he conceded. 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.”

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