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Narrow defeat for Austria far-right as Van der Bellen elected president

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Narrow defeat for Austria far-right as Van der Bellen elected president

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Alexander Van der Bellen has narrowly won the Austrian presidential election.

With all the votes in, Van der Bellen, an economist, had 50.3 percent of the vote, with his far-right rival on 49.7 percent. The result of Sunday’s presidential run-off was announced by the interior ministry on Monday afternoon.

The 72-year-old independent candidate, who has the backing of the Green Party, had been almost neck-and-neck with the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer overnight. It came down to the wire, with the counting of postal votes the decisive factor.

The president has a largely ceremonial role but this election was hugely symbolic – the migrant crisis having prompted the collapse of the political centre and the rise of populist right wing.

After a bruising, divisive campaign the winning candidate made an early attempt to heal wounds as he spoke to reporters in the garden of his campaign headquarters.

“I think we can interpret this tie in this way: We are equal. One half is as important as the other. I could say, you are as important as me and I am as important as you. And together we constitute this beautiful Austria,” Ven der Bellen said.

Hofer, 45, who campaigned on an anti-immigration platform, conceded defeat via his Facebook account, saying it had been a “sad day”.

Alexander Van der Bellen had urged voters to support “an open, Europe-friendly, Europe-conscious Austria”. The son of refugees who fled Stalin, he said he had experienced Austria’s rise from the ruins of World War II which he said had been “caused by the madness of nationalism”.

He had trailed Hofer by 14 points in the first round of the presidential election, that saw the collapse of the the two mainstream parties which had dominated the country’s post-war politics.

Van der Bellen trailed Hofer again after ballot booth votes were counted in Sunday’s presidential run-off, by 3.8 percent. But the inclusion of postal votes – representing around a sixth of the electorate – swung the outcome in his favour, and he finished some 31,000 votes ahead.

The breakdown of the results suggested a split between urban areas, where a majority of voters backed Van der Bellen – and the countryside, where most people were for Hofer.

The campaign focused heavily on Europe’s migrant crisis. Austria has seen soaring numbers of asylum seekers and hundreds of thousands have crossed into Germany.

Hofer campaigned on the slogan “Austria First”. His anti-EU, anti-immigrant Freedom Party has toned down its rhetoric but Hofer has sported symbols associated with Austria’s nationalist and Nazi past.

Despite his election defeat, the success of the Freedom Party (FPO) in getting so far will have given a boost to other populist parties in Europe.

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