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Austria rejects far-right candidate Norbert Hofer in presidential election

Source: The Guardian | Sunday, 4 December 2016 Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/04/far-right-party-concedes-defeat-in-austrian-presidential-election

Austria has decisively rejected the possibility of the European Union getting its first far-right head of state, instead electing a strongly pro-European former leader of the Green party as its next president.

Alexander Van der Bellen, who ran as an independent, increased his lead over the Freedom party candidate, Norbert Hofer, by a considerable margin from the original vote in May, which was annulled by the constitutional court because of sloppy vote-counting.

The rightwing populist candidate conceded defeat within less than half an hour of the first exit polls, writing on Facebook: “I congratulate Alexander Van der Bellen for his success and ask all Austrians to pull together and work together.” The 45-year-old said he was “endlessly sad” and “would have liked to look after Austria”.

The Freedom party secretary Herbert Kickl, who acted as Hofer’s campaign manager, said: “The bottom line is it didn’t quite work out. In this case the establishment – which pitched in once again to block, to stonewall and to prevent renewal – has won.”

Werner Kogler, a delegate for the Green party, described the result as a “small global turning of the tide in these uncertain, not to say hysterical and even stupid times”.

In May, Van der Bellen had won the election by a mere 30,863 votes, and most commentators had expected a similarly close result this time, with some predicting that a final outcome would not be determined until as late as the middle of the week.

In the end, the outcome of the almost year-long election campaign was clear within 10 minutes of the last polls closing. According to the public broadcaster ORF’s first exit poll, Van der Bellen had gained 53.4% of the vote with more than 60% of voting districts counted – too strong a lead to be turned around by Hofer, who had 46.6% of the vote. By 7pm local time, with almost 100% counted, Van der Bellen was still on 53.3%.

At the runoff vote in May, 50.35% voted for Van der Bellen and 49.65% for Hofer. The Austrian public defied predictions that cold temperatures and fatigue after almost a year of campaigning would stop many from casting their votes: turnout was 73.8%, up from 72.65% in May.

In the wake of the first exit polls on Sunday evening, many politicians speculated that Britain’s vote to leave the European Union may have played a role in boosting Van der Bellen’s lead from May.

Hofer had promised to call a referendum on EU membership if the bloc of states took further steps towards integration, while also stating that he believed Austria was better off in the EU. Van der Bellen ran his second campaign on a decisively pro-European ticket, with posters proclaiming that a vote for him meant “No to Öxit”.

Reinhold Lopatka, party leader of the centre-right ÖVP, speculated on Sunday night that fears about Austria’s EU membership would most likely have played a role in winning Van der Bellen votes in regional districts that profited from European Union subsidies. According to an ORF poll, 65% of Van der Bellen’s voters had cited his pro-EU attitudes as the main reason for rooting for the candidate.

Austria’s constitutional court annulled the May result in July after an investigation revealed irregularities in the count of the vote in several constituencies.

While the court emphasised that there was no evidence of the outcome of the election having been actively manipulated, the confirmed irregularities had affected a total of 77,926 votes that could have gone to either Hofer or Van der Bellen – enough, in theory, to change the outcome of the election.

With officials under clear instructions not to cut any corners to avoid another embarrassing recount, many experts had expected that a definitive result would not emerge until Monday, Tuesday, or possibly even Wednesday.

More than 10,000 voting booths had opened across the country on a clear but cold day at 8am.

The Freedom party candidate and his wife, Verena Hofer, had cast their votes in his hometown of Pinkafeld in Burgenland, the easternmost and least populous region of Austria. “I am calm and confident,” he told the press outside the voting booth.

Van der Bellen and his wife, Doris Schmidauer, voted at around 11am at a school in Vienna’s Mariahilf district, telling journalists that he did not expect a clear result until Monday.

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