Austrian far-right admits defeat in presidential race

VIENNA, Austria (3rd UPDATE) – Austria's Norbert Hofer conceded defeat Sunday, December 4, in his bid to become Europe's first far-right president, as projections showed he was lagging behind in a bitterly fought election re-run.

Greens-backed independent Alexander Van der Bellen swept 53.3% of the votes against 46.7% for his rival from the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe), according to public television projections.

Hofer's likely defeat will see EU leaders breathe a sigh of relief in the wake of the anti-establishment tide sweeping many countries following the Brexit vote and Donald Trump's shock election triumph in the US.

"I am incredibly sad that it didn't work," the 45-year-old Hofer said in a message on Facebook.

"I congratulate Alexander Van der Bellen on his success and call on all Austrians to stick together and work together."

The official result of the marathon election, which lasted nearly a year, is not expected before Monday, December 5, when postal votes will be tallied.

But the Freedom Party conceded defeat within minutes of the poll projections being released, shortly after voting ended.

The outcome deals a crushing blow to Hofer who already narrowly lost to Van der Bellen, 72, in a first runoff in May, an outcome that was contested by the FPOe and eventually annulled over ballot counting breaches. 

Smooth-tongued gun enthusiast Hofer had vowed to "get rid of the dusty establishment," seek closer ties with Russia and fight against "Brussels centralizing power."

Observers had feared that a win for the Austrian far-right could trigger a domino effect with key elections next year in France, Germany, and The Netherlands.

"Congratulations to the FPOe which fought bravely. The next elections will be theirs," tweeted the FPOe's French ally Marine Le Pen of the National Front, who is running for president in 2017. 

'Nothing will change'

"From the start I have always fought and argued in favor of an Austrian that is pro-European," a visibly relieved Van der Bellen said on public television.

Meanwhile there was palpable disappointment in the FPOe Vienna headquarters, where several people including Hofer's young daughter burst into tears after the results emerged. 

"It's clear that nothing will change in Austria because with Van der Bellen the two main parties can continue without being challenged," Johannes Huebner, 60, told AFP.

Populist groups across Europe, on the right and the left, have benefited from a growing sense of unease about globalization, multiculturalism, rising inequality, and biting austerity.

The Austrian vote was held on the same day as 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. 

One worrying aspect for EU decision-makers had been that Hofer's rise to the post of head of state might also pave the way for a return to government of his popular FPOe, founded by ex-Nazis.

Van der Bellen's "victory is a heavy defeat of nationalism and anti-European, backward-looking populism," said European parliament president Martin Schulz in a tweet.

Ugly campaign

Some 6.4 million Austrians were eligible to vote in Sunday's election.

Back in May, the postal vote had swung the ballot in favor of ex-Greens party chief Van der Bellen who beat his rival by just 31,000 votes.

FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache said his party would not contest the outcome this time.

"Of course it's disappointing for me... I was hoping for more," he said, stressing that the result was nonetheless "a historic result" for his party.

The re-run ends an ugly 11-month campaign which saw Hofer posters being defaced with Hitler moustaches and Van der Bellen's with dog excrement. 

The far-right candidate had 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.

"I am glad this election is over," said Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern of the Social Democrats.

"I am convinced Van der Bellen will be a great partner for open-minded, future-focused politics of opportunities and hope." –