Summary: Austria voted against the anti-immigrant, "far right" Freedom Party candidate Hofer as head of state in a presidential election race which became the latest test of rising anti-establishment forces in Europe after the election of Donald Trump as US president.
Norbert Hofer, the Freedom party candidate, won 46.7% of the vote in Sunday’s contest according to early results and projections. His opponent Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green politician who ran as an independent, won 53.3%.
A mapped breakdown shows that most of Austria voted for Hofer, however it was the big cities that again came to Van der Bellen's aid.
If the forecasts are correct, Mr Van der Bellen would have increased his lead after narrowly winning against Mr Hofer when the election was first run in May. The result will come as a relief for Europe’s mainstream political leaders, suggesting support for political disruption make have reached a limit following Mr Trump’s election and the UK vote to leave the EU.
Quoted by the FT, Thomas Hofer, a political analyst in Vienna, said that “the narrative of these forces being unstoppable has been broken — or at least stalled. It lifts some of the pressure and gloom about where Europe is going.”
Nevertheless the strong showing by the Freedom party is still likely to be seen as a boost for Marine Le Pen, leader of the France’s National Front ahead of her country’s presidential election next year. Herbert Kickl, who ran Mr Hofer’s campaign, described the vote as a “historic” for the Freedom party.
Don't count the Freedom Party out yet though: according to oppinion polls, Freedom party could become Austria’s largest political party after parliamentary elections due by September 2018 but expected to be called early. That could see the party’s leader Heinz-Christian Strache becoming the country’s next chancellor.
“This may be only a temporary relief for European leaders if it strengthens the Freedom Party’s chances in parliamentary elections,” said Heather Grabbe, European politics expert at the Open Society European Policy Institute in Brussels.
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Update 3: The campaign manger of the Hofer campaign has conceded the presidential election.
#BREAKING 'Sad' Austrian far-right candidate congratulates election winner— AFP news agency (@AFP) December 4, 2016
#BREAKING Austria far-right concedes defeat in presidential race— AFP news agency (@AFP) December 4, 2016
Freedom Party candidate Norbet Hofer's campaign manager says independent Alexander Van der Bellen has won the Austrian presidential election— Sky News Newsdesk (@SkyNewsBreak) December 4, 2016
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Update 2: Alexander Van der Bellen, the Green Party-backed candidate running as an independent, defeated the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer to become Austria’s next president, public television channel ORF said, citing initial projections.
With counting still under way, Van der Bellen took an estimated 53.6 percent of the vote to Hofer’s 46.4 percent after Sunday’s repeat run-off election, according to ORF. Austrian Press Agency also projected a win for Van der Bellen, based on early results .
- AUSTRIA'S GREEN PARTY-BACKED CANDIDATE WINS ELECTION, ORF SAYS
- VAN DER BELLEN LEADS AUSTRIAN PRESIDENCY RACE, PROJECTION SHOWS
- GREEN PARTY CANDIDATE HAS 53.6% IN PROJECTIONS, HOFER 46.4%
As quoted by ORF, Van der Bellens' election leader Lothar Lockl, says that a feeling of "unbelievable gratitude and relief" prevails among the supporters of Van der Bellens.
As shown by ORF, the green party is rejoicing upon hearing the news:
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Update: the first exit polls are in and they show that Norbert Hofer is behind in initial presidential race: projections
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Six months after a hotly contested presidential election was voided after evidence was found confirming "widespread" voting fraud, Austrians returned to the polls on Sunday in a bitterly fought election re-run which could see the European Union's first "far-right president" and boost the anti-establishment tide sweeping many countries.
Austrian presidential candidates Van der Bellen (left) and Norbert Hofer (right)
Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FPOe) said he felt "calm and optimistic" as he cast his ballot in his hometown of Pinkafeld, 100 kilometres south of Vienna. Hofer, 45, hopes to emerge victorious after he narrowly lost to Greens-backed independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen in a first run-off in May, which was annulled over ballot count breaches.
Opinion polls indicate the candidates are neck-and-neck in a tense race described as "day of reckoning" by Austrian media.
As AFP reports, boosted by Brexit and Donald Trump's shock US election win, smooth-tongued gun enthusiast Hofer has vowed to "get rid of the dusty establishment", seek closer ties with Russia and fight against "Brussels centralising power". "This vote will be a sign of the mood in Europe," Viennese voter Gerhard told AFP, bracing icy temperatures to cast his ballot.
Needless to say, should Norbert be elected, the mood in Brussels, if not so much Europe, will be quite dour. Although Austria's presidency is largely ceremonial, EU leaders fear a win for Hofer would trigger a domino effect with key elections next year in France, Germany and The Netherlands. Populist groups across Europe, on the right and the left, have benefited from a growing sense of unease about globalisation, multiculturalism, rising inequality, and austerity cuts.
"Much success today, Norbert," tweeted the FPOe's Dutch ally Geert Wilders, whose anti-Islam party is leading opinion polls ahead of a general election in March.
As reported before, the Austrian vote will be announced just hours ahead the conclusion of a high-stakes referendum in Italy, which could bring about the resignation of its prime minister and renew chaos in a bloc already weakened by Britain's shock vote in June to quit the EU.
Terrified of the ongoing overhaul against the status quo, the Financial Times wrote recently that "nationwide votes in Austria and Italy on December 4 are causing palpable anxiety in Europe that... this will be the day when the sky starts falling." Incidentally, here is a list of the FT's predictions for 2016 from December 31, 2015:
The FT's predictions for 2016:— Gergely Polner (@eurocrat) December 4, 2016
- Clinton will beat Ted Cruz
- UK will vote to stay in EU
- Merkel will lose her job https://t.co/eCUTjff6vC
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6.4 million Austrians are eligible to vote, and exit polls are expected shortly after voting ends at 1600 GMT, in less than an hour. If the race is too close to call, the winner will not be known until Monday when the postal vote count is tallied.
One can hope that unlike May, this time there won't be postal vote fraud: back in May, this is what swung the ballot in favour of ex-Greens party chief Van der Bellen, 72, who beat his rival by just 31,000 votes. LHofer’s lawyers showed irregularities in the way some of the roughly 4.5 million ballots were counted, leading to today's vote re-run.
Today's repeat vote ends an ugly 11-month campaign which saw Hofer posters being defaced with Hitler moustaches and Van der Bellen's with dog excrement. "The new president has to unify the country, this long election has polarised society," voter Katharina Gayer told AFP in Vienna.
Amid growing voter fatigue, Van der Bellen has urged people to choose "reason, not extremes" while Hofer vowed to keep Austria "safe". The far-right hopeful has largely avoided inflammatory rhetoric, instead tapping into public anxieties about record immigration and rising unemployment.
His polished style saw him triumph in a first round in April, sensationally knocking out candidates from the two main centrist parties that have dominated Austrian politics since 1945. Disillusioned voters are "flocking to populist movements and the easy answers they offer," political analyst Thomas Hofer (no relation) told AFP.
"We want to be part of the EU but not to lose our identity," voter Helwig Leibinger told AFP at Hofer's final rally in Vienna on Friday. "We want a commander-in-chief of the armed forces who can give the right orders."
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As Bloomberg adds, whether or not Hofer manages to defeat Alexander Van der Bellen of the Green Party in Austria, the country is heading for its first president in seven decades who isn’t from either the Social Democrats or the People’s Party.
Both candidates have promised to wield the power of the presidency more aggressively. Hofer, 45, has promised to dismiss governments he deems incapable of passing legislation. Van der Bellen, 72, has pledged to block anti-EU forces from governing. Hofer also wants to trigger new national elections. “The incentive for Hofer to dissolve the National Council if he wins the Presidential election is clear,” JP Morgan economist David Mackie said in a note. “The Freedom Party looks likely to do much better if an election were to be held now, as it is currently polling well ahead of the other two parties.”
Still, what a Hofer victory might mean is not exactly unclear. He wants more Swiss-style direct democracy, including a referendum on Austria's EU membership if Turkey joins or the bloc becomes more centralised. Hitherto unused presidential powers could, in theory, allow Hofer to fire the coalition government.
More realistically his victory might prompt the main parties to pull the plug on their unhappy union and call fresh elections, benefiting the poll-leading FPOe. In 2000, over 150,000 people marched in Vienna against the FPOe after it entered a coalition with the conservative People's Party. But observers say the far-right's rise may not trigger the same backlash now that populists are gaining ground across the continent.