Austria’s Norbert Hofer conceded defeat on Sunday in his bid to become Europe’s first far-right president, as projections showed he was lagging behind in a bitterly fought election re-run.
Greens-backed independent Alexander Van der Bellen swept 53.3 per cent of the votes against 46.7 per cent for his rival from the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe), according to public television projections.
Hofer’s likely defeat will see EU leaders breathe a sigh of relief in the wake of the anti-establishment tide sweeping many countries following the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s shock election triumph in the US.
“I am incredibly sad that it didn’t work,” the 45-year-old Hofer said in a message on Facebook.
“I congratulate Alexander Van der Bellen on his success and call on all Austrians to stick together and work together.”
The official result of the marathon election, which lasted nearly a year, is not expected before Monday when postal votes will be tallied.
But the Freedom Party conceded defeat within minutes of the poll projections being released, shortly after voting ended.
The outcome deals a crushing blow to Hofer who already narrowly lost to Van der Bellen, 72, in a first runoff in May, an outcome that was contested by the FPOe and eventually annulled over ballot counting breaches.
Smooth-tongued gun enthusiast Hofer had vowed to “get rid of the dusty establishment”, seek closer ties with Russia and fight against “Brussels centralising power”.
Observers had feared that a win for the Austrian far-right could trigger a domino effect with key elections next year in France, Germany and The Netherlands.
“Congratulations to the FPOe which fought bravely. The next elections will be theirs,” tweeted the FPOe’s French ally Marine Le Pen of the National Front, who is running for president in 2017.
“From the start I have always fought and argued in favour of an Austrian that is pro-European,” a visibly relieved Van der Bellen said on public television.
Meanwhile there was palpable disappointment in the FPOe Vienna headquarters, where several people including Hofer’s young daughter burst into tears after the results emerged.
“It’s clear that nothing will change in Austria because with Van der Bellen the two main parties can continue without being challenged,” said Johannes Huebner.
Populist groups across Europe, on the right and the left, have benefited from a growing sense of unease about globalisation, multiculturalism, rising inequality, and biting austerity.