Austrian presidency: Far-right candidate narrowly defeated by former Green Party leader

The candidate of the far-right Freedom Party in Austria, once led by the late Jörg Haider, only narrowly failed in his attempt to win the country's presidency after postal ballots were counted on Monday.

Author: World Jewish Congress

Alexander Van der Bellen (l) and Norbert Hofer at a debate

The former leader of the Green Party, Alexander Van der Bellen, 72, who ran as an independent, was elected Austria's new head of state and will succeed Austrian President Heinz Fischer.

The run-off election between Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the FPÖ, was too close to call on Sunday, and Austrians had to wait until Monday for the count of the 740,000 absentee and postal ballots.

With all votes counted, Van der Bellen received 50.3 percent while 49.7 percent of valid ballots were cast in favor of Hofer. The two candidates separated only 31,026 votes.

In the first round of voting on 24 April, Hofer had secured 35 percent of the votes cast while Van der Bellen had obtained 21 percent.

In a post on his Facebook page, 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.”

Austria's presidency is a largely ceremonial role but with important powers such as the ability to dismiss the government.

Lauder congratulates Van der Bellen

World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder said: "I congratulate Mr. Van der Bellen on his victory. I am sure he will become a good President of Austria and follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, President Heinz Fischer.

"The fact that Austria almost elected a politician representing a far-right party as new head of state is unsettling. However, I sincerely hope that the leadership of the FPÖ will take this opportunity to move to the political center and distance itself from more radical elements within the party. It will now be the task of President-elect Van der Bellen and the Austrian government to address the fact that the electorate appears to be deeply divided and disillusioned and that it wants to see real change.

"I hope that with Mr. Van der Bellen at the helm, Austria will continue to combat all forms of racism and anti-Semitism and that it will remain the cosmopolitan, open country at the heart of Europe that it is today," Lauder said.

Many observers considered the election a watershed for anti-immigration parties across Europe, and the results put Austria at the forefront of a populist surge currently taking place in many European nations.

Sunday's provisional result, which did not included postal ballots, showed Hofer ahead with 51.9 percent to van der Bellen's 48.1 percent.

The vote in Austria, a country of 8.5 million people, has unsettled the political establishment elsewhere in Europe, particularly in neighboring Germany where a new anti-immigration party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), is on the rise, while in France, the National Front of Marine Le Pen is ahead in polls ahead of a presidential election next year.

Hofer's party, the FPÖ, was co-founded by a number of former Nazis in 1955 (following a party fpunded in 1949 for EX-Nazis) , and some of its recent leaders, including current Chairman Heinz-Christian Strache, were no strangers in the past when it came to stoking controversy about Austria's past.

The Israeli government has long refused any contact with the FPÖ, whose former leader Jörg Haider praised Hitler’s employment policies. Israel withdrew its ambassador in Vienna in 2000 after Haider joined a government coalition, just as it did in 1986 after former Nazi Kurt Waldheim was elected as president.

However, FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache recently paid a private visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and Norbert Hofer also pledged during his campaign that one of his first visits would be to Israel.