Austria election result a 'good omen' for Europe

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German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that the far-right defeat in Austria's presidential election was "a good omen" for Europe.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on Sunday said that the far-right defeat in Austria's presidential election was "a good omen" for Europe. 

"If the first results are confirmed this will be a good omen against populism in Europe," Steinmeier, who is to become Germany's next president, told a news conference with his Greek counterpart Nikos Kotzias in Athens. 

Austria's Norbert Hofer conceded defeat Sunday in his bid to become Europe's first far-right president, as projections showed he was lagging behind Greens-backed independent Alexander Van der Bellen in a bitterly fought election re-run.

"In this particular situation Europe is facing, we are urgently in need of good news," Steinmeier said earlier during a meeting with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, referring to "the Brexit decision" and to "mounting pressure by populist and nationalist forces". 

The candidate vying to become Europe's first freely elected far-right head of state since World War II conceded defeat in Austria's presidential election soon after polls closed.

Sunday's result is a blow to populists who had hoped a wave of anti-establishment anger sweeping Western democracies would carry Norbert Hofer to power after Britain's Brexit referendum and Americans' election of Donald Trump as president.

Hofer, of the anti-immigration and anti-Islam Freedom Party (FPO), conceded he had been soundly beaten by former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen.

"I am infinitely sad that it didn't work out," Hofer said in a posting on his Facebook page less than an hour after polls closed and the first projections were broadcast.

Austria's president traditionally has a largely ceremonial role. But the election, a re-run of a May vote that was overturned due to counting irregularities, had been seen as another test of populist sentiment in Europe ahead of elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands next year.

Voters may have heeded Van der Bellen's increasingly strident warnings that Hofer wanted to follow Britain's lead and pull Austria out of the European Union.

Van der Bellen had a clear lead over Hofer, according to a projection by pollster SORA for broadcaster ORF that included a count of 69 per cent of votes. The projection showed Van der Bellen on 53.3 per cent and Hofer on 46.7 per cent, with a margin of error of 1 percentage point.

"Should this projection really be true, at which point we can be pleased, it is a good day for Austria," Van der Bellen's campaign manager Lothar Lockl told ORF minutes after polls closed.

When Hofer narrowly lost the original run-off in May with 49.65 per cent of the vote, European governments breathed a sigh of relief. Far-right parties like France's National Front cheered the record performance. Opinion polls had suggested the re-run was too close to call.

A Hofer win would have raised the prospect of two near-simultaneous blows to Europe's political establishment. 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.

While the president's role is traditionally largely ceremonial, Hofer had made clear he wanted to be an interventionist head of state, threatening to dismiss a government if it raises taxes and calling for referendums on a range of issues, even though referendums are beyond the job's remit.

The president also plays an important part in forming coalitions. Van der Bellen has said he would try to prevent an FPO-led government even if it won an election. The FPO is running first in polls with support of roughly a third of voters, with parliamentary elections due in 2018.

Van der Bellen, 72, put Brexit at the heart of his campaign, arguing that Hofer wants Austria to hold its own "Oexit" referendum, putting jobs at risk in the small, trade-dependent country.

'European unity'

The EU on Sunday hailed the victory of Greens-backed candidate Alexander Van der Bellen over his far-right opponent in Austrian presidential elections as bolstering European unity at a time of many challenges.

"It is my pleasure to extend my wholehearted congratulations on your election ... On behalf of the European Council and personally, I wish you every success," Council head Donald Tusk said in a statement.

"At a time when we are faced with many difficult challenges, the continued constructive contribution of Austria to finding common European solutions and keeping our European unity will remain essential," Tusk said in a statement.

Public television projections gave Van der Bellen 53.3 percent of the vote against 46.7 percent for Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigration Freedom Party.

Polls had suggested the outcome would be very close, as in the first poll in May, stoking fears Hofer could become the European Union's first far-right leader and so give growing anti-establishment sentiment a major boost after Britain's shock Brexit vote in June and Donald Trump's victory.

Earlier, European Parliament head Martin Schulz hailed the outcome as a "heavy defeat of nationalism and anti-European, backward-looking populism".

Source AAP

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