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Austria's president-elect talks of uniting his divided country

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Austria's president-elect talks of uniting his divided country

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Supporters of former Greens party leader, Alexander Van der Bellen, are breathing sighs of relief after Austria came close to becoming the first European Union country to elect a far-right head of state.

Instead, after postal votes were counted following Sunday’s too-close-to-call poll, environmentalist Van der Bellen won by the narrowest of victories – only around 31,000 votes separated winner and loser. The victor immediately spoke of uniting his country in his first address.

“Obviously many people in this country feel they have not been seen or heard enough, or both. We will need a different culture of communication, politics that does not focus so much on itself or on publicity but on the real issues, real concerns and fears and even on the anger of some people in this country,” said Van der Bellen.

Far-right ambitions

Austria’s far-right candidate Norbert Hofer has surprisingly so far limited his acknowledgment of defeat to social media.

But his party leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, now hopes to ride the wave of support for the anti-immigration Freedom Party into the next general election. He is said to be setting his sights on Austria’s chancellorship in 2018,

And opinion polls suggest that the Freedom Party would win parliamentary elections if held now.

Alam bells

Greece’s leftist Syriza party said Hofer’s strong showing “means it is time that alarm bells start ringing for Europe”.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said all of Europe was “breathing more easily’‘.

And French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said it was a “relief” to see Austrians “reject populism and extremism”.

Hofer, 45, has described himself as a centre-right politician and told voters not to believe suggestions from opponents that he would be a dangerous president.

His party, however, traces its roots to the Nazi past that Austria has not confronted as openly as Germany. The FPO was founded by a decorated member of the Nazi SS who served as agriculture minister after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938.

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