Austrian election: Far-right candidate concedes defeat

Bitter 11-month election campaign has left political sphere polarised like never before

FPÖ presidential candidate Norbert Hofer. His campaign manager called Sunday’s result “historic”. Photograph: Heinz-Peter Bader /Reuters

FPÖ presidential candidate Norbert Hofer. His campaign manager called Sunday’s result “historic”. Photograph: Heinz-Peter Bader /Reuters

 

Austrian voters decided not to follow the US example on Sunday, rejecting a populist presidential hopeful in favour of centrist candidate Alexander Van der Bellen.

Exit polls for ORF public television suggested 53.3 per cent of voters backed ex-Green Party leader Mr Van der Bellen (72), compared to 46.7 per cent for Norbert Hofer of the far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ).

Mr Hofer (45) won the first round in April, while Mr Van der Bellen won the May runoff by a narrow margin. Irregularities in the second round postal vote forced Sunday’s rerun, with a result indicating a swing of almost four percentage points in favour of Mr Van der Bellen.

“This is a historic day,” said Mr Van der Bellen. “The lead in May was just 30,000 votes, now it is more than 300,000 votes.”

Regardless of the outcome, an embittered 11-month election campaign has left Austrian politics polarised like never before and makes early parliamentary elections likely next year. Current opinion polls suggest one-third of voters would back Mr Hofer’s FPÖ, making it Austrian’s most popular political party and coalition king-maker.

With an eye on the looming election, Mr Hofer’s campaign manager Herbert Kickl said: “The renewal of Austria has been delayed, but this is not the end of the story.”

“It was one against them all,” he said, a nod to wide establishment support for Mr Hofer’s rival. “The renewal of Austria has been delayed, but this is not the end of the story.”

Pent-up anger

As with the presidential election, any parliamentary campaign will be dominated by pent-up anger towards Austria’s grand coalition of Social Democrats (SPÖ) and conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), who have shared power for much of the post-war era.

The FPÖ hopes it can tap into that frustration as well as fears over immigration, globalisation and a weak economy.

“We came a long way and almost managed it, but of course I am disappointed,” said FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache, a possible future Austrian chancellor. “What we’ve experienced is a massive fear campaign by the system against Norbert Hofer, who stood for renewal.”

After forcing a rerun of the presidential run-off, FPÖ strategists had hoped their candidate would benefit from two major anti-establishment protest votes in the subsequent months: Britain’s Brexit vote and the US election of Donald Trump as president. In the end a majority of Austrian voters parked their frustration and shied away from sending a drastic signal, backing Mr Van der Bellen – if with little enthusiasm.

Exit polls

Exit poll analysis suggested two thirds of voters viewed Mr Van der Bellen as the best representative of Austria abroad. However 42 per cent of his voters, the largest group, admitted their main motivation was to prevent a President Hofer. By contrast a majority (51 per cent) of Mr Hofer’s voters gave him their support in the hope of seeing him as president.

Among Hofer supporters, one in two believed he was the stronger candidate when it came to understanding people’s fears and challenging the Austrian status quo. Just one third of his voters saw him as the more suitable candidate for head of state in the Hofburg palace.

“There was clearly fear among a sizeable number of voters of having a populist in the Hofburg, that it would send a bad signal internationally,” said Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, editor-in-chief of Der Standard daily.

Opposition politician Matthias Strolz, head of the liberal Neos party, suggested voters had distanced themselves from Mr Hofer after he called into question Austria’s long-term EU membership.

“I think that made people pensive, that Europe is not something you play around with too easily,” he said.

EU leaders from around the continent were quick to congratulate the new president on his win, with German Social Demcrat (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel saying the result “lifts a weight” from European hearts.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen tweeted her congratulations to the FPÖ: “The next parliamentary elections will be your victory.”