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Wednesday, August 23, 2017
By Francois Murphy and Kirsti Knolle

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria’s far-right presidential candidate was soundly defeated on Sunday, confounding forecasts of a tight election in which he would ride a wave of populism sweeping the West.

Norbert Hofer lost to former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen, who had put the June Brexit referendum at the center of his campaign, saying the far right would lead Austria down the same road and warning voters not to “play with this fire”.

“From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” said Van der Bellen.

Hofer, of the anti-immigration and anti-Islam Freedom Party (FPO), was seeking to become Europe’s first freely elected far-right head of state since World War Two but conceded defeat soon after polls closed.

A projection by pollster SORA for broadcaster ORF, which included a count of 99 percent of ballots cast in polling stations, showed Van der Bellen on 53.3 percent and Hofer on 46.7 percent with a margin of error of 0.4 percentage points.

The result dealt a blow to populists who had hoped a wave of anti-establishment anger sweeping Western democracies would carry Hofer to power after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the U.S. election of Donald Trump as president.

Although Austria’s president traditionally has a largely ceremonial role, the election was a test of populist sentiment in Europe ahead of elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands next year.

European governments breathed a sigh of relief at the result, which opinion polls beforehand had said was too close to call.

“A weight has fallen from all of Europe’s shoulders,” said German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat. “If the projections are confirmed, the result of the election in Austria is a clear victory for reason against right-wing populism.”

‘INFINITELY SAD’

The election was a re-run of a May vote that was overturned due to counting irregularities, which was a far tighter affair with Hofer winning 49.65 percent of the vote.

“I am infinitely sad that it didn’t work out,” Hofer said on his Facebook page less than an hour after polls closed on Sunday and the first projections were broadcast, later adding that he would run again in the next presidential election in six years’ time.

He said he would now turn his attention to running for parliament in an election due by 2018, which polls suggest the FPO would win since it now has the support of roughly a third of voters, well clear of its nearest rival.

“Congratulations to the FPO, which fought valiantly. The next legislative elections will show their victory!” tweeted Marine Le Pen of France’s National Front, an FPO ally who will contest the French presidential election next year.

Data from SORA showed that Van der Bellen’s pro-European stance was his supporters’ second-strongest reason for voting for him, cited by 65 percent of them, just behind the view that he would best represent Austria abroad.

Among Hofer supporters, the top reason was that he “understands the concerns of people like me”, cited by 55 percent of those respondents.

But a potentially bigger threat to Europe’s political establishment looms. Italy is holding a referendum on Sunday on constitutional reform that could decide the political future of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who has promised to resign if he loses.

There is also the more distant prospect of a clash between Van der Bellen and the FPO in the event of an FPO victory in a parliamentary election. The president plays an important role in the formation of coalitions after an election, and Van der Bellen has said he would try to prevent an FPO-led government.

Austrians will be glad to put behind them the comedy of errors that meant the election dragged on for almost a year, prompting some media to label the country a “banana republic”.

The result of the May 22 runoff was overturned mostly due to election officials cutting corners as they raced to complete the count. The re-run was then postponed because the glue on the envelopes for some postal ballots did not stick.

(Additional reporting by Michel Rose in Paris, Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Sasa Kavic and Branko Filipovic in Pinkafeld, Austria, and Shadia Nasralla and Michael Shields in Vienna; Editing by Susan Fenton and Pravin Char)

IMAGE: Austrian far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) presidential candidate Norbert Hofer waits for the first projections in his office in Vienna, Austria, December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger