European Jewish Congress
Austria elects Green candidate as president in narrow defeat for far right
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Austria elects Green candidate as president in narrow defeat for far right

Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green party leader running as independent, pips the Freedom party’s Norbert Hofer.

A leftwing, independent candidate has narrowly prevented Austria from becoming the first EU country to elect a far-right head of state after a knife-edge contest ended with his opponent conceding defeat.

Alexander Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor backed by the Green party, defeated Norbert Hofer, of the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic Freedom party, a day after polling closed and only once more than 700,000 postal ballots – about 10% of available votes – were taken into account.

The Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial role but the outcome became hugely symbolic.

Mirroring the rise of populist parties across Europe, the Freedom party exploited anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of the continent’s refugee crisis, and despite Hofer’s narrow defeat, the election has left a deep split over the direction Austria should now take.

The Austrian interior ministry confirmed that after postal votes were counted, Hofer’s final score was 49.7%, against 50.3% for Van der Bellen, the son of two refugees.

In a post on Facebook, Hofer wrote: “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.”

Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Green party who announced after the result that he would put his party membership on hold during his presidency, is the EU’s second head of state with a Green party background after Latvia last year elected Green politician Raimonds Vejonis as president.

In a speech in the gardens of Vienna’s Palais Schönburg, Van der Bellen said the tight results put “even greater responsibility on me, but also on Mr Hofer”. The outcome showed the country was made up of two halves that were equally important. He added: “Together we make up this beautiful Austria.”

While the elections had revealed a great rift running through Austrian society, the 72-year-old said, “this rift has existed for some time, though perhaps we didn’t look at it that closely in the past”. The fact that people had debated the presidency so intensely was a positive sign that “people are not left cold by politics – they want to actively shape it”.

Hofer and Van der Bellen were separated by just 31,000 votes out of more than 4.6m ballots cast. Before postal votes were counted, they were neck and neck, with Van der Bellen on 48.1% of direct votes and Hofer on 51.9%. Many Austrian websites were down under the weight of traffic as the country waited with bated breath for news of the final result of Sunday’s vote.

Hofer urged his supporters not to be discouraged but to see the campaign as “an investment in the future”. Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the Freedom party, wrote on his Facebook page: “This is just the beginning. The start of a new era in our democracy, towards more direct democracy and binding referenda.”

The chancellor, Christian Kern – a Social Democrat who had endorsed Van der Bellen – said the challenge for the new president was to ensure that no voter was left feeling like they had ended up on the losing side. “We have understood the protest and will orient our political course accordingly,” said Kern, whose own SPÖ suffered dismal losses in the election’s first round.

Moshe Kantor, President of the European Jewish Congress, said: “While we are certainly satisfied with the result, there is little room to celebrate the high level of support for someone with such extremist views.”

Click here to read the full article in The Guardian

Tuesday, May 24, 2016
More News
Politico:
Austria’s conservatives and right-wing populists surged to victory in Sunday’s parliamentary election, according to early projections, heralding a tectonic shift in the country’s politics after more than a decade under a centrist coalition.
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