In Brief

Austrian presidential election: Far-right candidate defeated

Alexander Van der Bellen victorious after tight race against anti-immigration party's Norbert Hofer

160523-vanderbellen.jpg

Alexander Van der Bellen has won the Austrian presidency, narrowly preventing rival Norbert Hofer from becoming Europe's first far-right head of state since the Second World War.  

The 72-year old retired economics professor and former Green Party leader won with a miniscule margin of just 0.4 percentage points, according to local media. An official result is due later today.

"The election [has] revealed a deep split over the direction the country should now take," says The Guardian.

Hofer, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, had a narrow lead in the first-round vote but in the end, the result was decided by 700,000 postal ballots.

He had campaigned on a strong anti-refugee platform, while Van der Bellen has long urged the public to welcome Austria's 90,000 asylum-seekers.

"I've experienced how Austria rose from the ruins of World War Two, caused by the madness of nationalism," he said while campaigning.

Hofer conceded defeat on Facebook, writing: "Dear friends, I thank you for your fantastic support. Of course today I am sad. I would have liked to have watched out for you as president of our wonderful country".

Austrian presidential vote: Candidates neck-and-neck after second round

23 May AM 

Austrians are waiting to see if a last-minute drive for tactical voting has managed to prevent far-right politician Norbert Hofer from being elected president.

Initial exit polls put the anti-immigrant candidate in a virtual dead heat with his rival, 72-year-old Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green Party politician who ran as an independent.

The former political science professor trailed Hofer by 13 per cent in the first-round vote, prompting establishment and liberal Austrians to join forces in a last-ditch second-round drive to avoid a far-right presidency. Postal votes, which are still being counted, will now prove crucial.

If elected, Hofer would be Europe's first far-right head of state since the Second World War and while the Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial role, a win would represent a "seismic shift in European politics", says The Independent.

Even if he is defeated, adds The Guardian, a vote of 50 per cent for a far-right politician "will be celebrated as a triumph by eurosceptic and xenophobic parties across the continent".

There are fears Hofer could use the office to install a chancellor from his own Freedom Party, which has ridden the wave of anti-immigrant feeling gripping Austria and other European countries dealing with the massive influx of migrants.

Hofer himself carries a pistol and says bearing arms is a logical and reasonable reaction to the refugee crisis.

His detractors paint him as a Nazi in disguise, but defenders argue that his policies simply reflect the feelings of ordinary people whose concerns have been ignored by Europe's political ruling class.

There is no doubt that his election "would carry huge symbolism", says the Daily Telegraph, and could "prove a catalyst for other populist and anti-establishment movements currently surging across Europe, to grab power".

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