VIENNA – Austria celebrated on Sunday, December 4, the defeat of far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer against independent rival candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, concluding a tumultuous presidential race marred by anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant comments.
Van der Bellen, supported by the Green Party, called the result a vote for a “pro-European” Austria based on “freedom, equality and solidarity,” Radio Free Europe reported on Sunday, December 4.
Referring to the Austrian flag, he said a “red-white-red signal of hope and change, a red-white-red signal today goes from Austria to all the capitals of the European Union.
“Finally, you know, I will try to be an open-minded, a liberal-minded and first of all a pro-European federal president of the Republic of Austria.”
Hofer’s Freedom Party of Austria conceded defeat in the December 4 runoff as initial projections showed Van der Bellen leading with a tally of around 54 percent to Hofer’s 46 percent.
During election campaign, Hofer promised to “put Austria first” by introducing strict border controls and banning Muslim women from wearing the all-encompassing burqa in public.
He also had told voters that “Islam has no place in Austria”, threatening to fire the government if it did not get tougher on migrants from the Middle East.
By contrast, Van der Bellen strongly supports the European Union and advocates liberal migrant policies.
As he cast his ballot on December 4, he said that “what happens here today has relevance for all of Europe.”
On the other hand, Hofer was deeply critical of the European Union, at least in its current “centralized” form.
“If Austria wasn’t a member and wanted to join, I would vote ‘No’,” he has said.
He wants a “Europe of fatherlands” and a referendum on Austria’s EU membership, if Turkey joins the bloc or if Brussels takes too much power from member states.
The Austrian president, elected for a term of six years, has a largely symbolic position and cannot intervene in the daily running of the country, which is in the hands of the prime minister.
However, the president does have the power to dismiss the government.
The EU hailed the victory of Van der Bellen 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,” European Council head Donald Tusk said in a statement.