Austria's president-elect Alexander Van Der Bellen
Austria’s president-elect Alexander Van Der Bellen

Austrians voted against an anti-immigrant populist as their next president by a resounding margin, bucking a trend of nationalist electoral successes across the West.

Center-left candidate Alexander Van der Bellen beat back a challenge from his right-wing opponent Norbert Hofer, winning 53.3% of the vote in the country’s runoff election, according to a final count of votes cast on Sunday and a projection of mail-in ballot results.

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Hofer later congratulated Van der Bellen on his victory in a Facebook post and called on all Austrians to “stick together and work together.”

The 72-year-old Van der Bellen’s election to the largely ceremonial post notched a rare victory for supporters of European integration and liberal internationalism in a year in which nationalism and populism has swept across Europe and the U.S.

“I fought for a pro-European Austria from the start,” he said Sunday evening on Austrian television. He promised to uphold the values of “freedom, equality, and solidarity with all those who at the moment aren’t well off in Austria’s economic system.”

The Freedom Party’s Hofer would have become the first right-wing populist president in postwar Western Europe if he had prevailed.

Like other populist politicians across the continent, Hofer wanted to roll back the power of the European Union, toughen border controls, crack down on the flow of migrants to Europe and improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Let us together allow reason rather than extremism to lead our decisions,” Van der Bellen said in his closing video appeal to voters. “Let me be your president of the middle.”

Van der Bellen’s victory capped a nearly yearlong Austrian presidential campaign that brought to light widespread discontent with the country’s political establishment.

Either candidate would have been the first president in Austrian postwar history not supported by either of the two mainstream parties in the first round.

Van der Bellen is the former head of Austria’s Green Party and ran as an independent. In the campaign, he defended the EU and exhorted Austrians to accept refugees who have fled to Europe from war zones in Syria and elsewhere.

“I voted for the lesser of two evils,” one Van der Bellen voter, 35-year-old Peter Krohn, said Sunday in Vienna.

“Criticizing Europe is definitely justified, but one can’t address this with isolation and hatred.”

Blow to freedom party

Hofer’s loss is a blow to the Freedom Party after polls showed a close race against Van der Bellen. But the party, long ostracized for past ties to former Nazis and xenophobic rhetoric, still has a shot at governing Austria.

Early parliamentary elections are possible next year amid discord in the governing coalition of the country’s main center-right and center-left parties.

The Freedom Party shot to an enduring lead in the polls after the refugee crisis peaked in the fall of 2015, consistently urging that migrants be turned back even as Austria’s centrist government initially supported German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s more liberal line.

While the runoff for the presidency was close, polls in recent weeks have shown that Hofer’s Freedom Party remains Austria’s most popular by a large margin.

The party drew the support of 35% of those surveyed in a Gallup poll last month, well ahead of the second-place Social Democrats with 27%.

“Politicians have been distancing themselves ever more from the citizens,” Hofer said in a closing video appeal to voters on Saturday. “Some want to exchange the people. I go the opposite route: we must exchange the politicians.”

Aliance with Trump

Hofer, a 45-year-old former aeronautical engineer, had cast himself as an ally of right-wing leader Marine Le Pen in France, of President-elect Donald Trump in the U.S., and of the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany in Austria’s larger neighbor to the north.

“Trump was presented as though he was the Devil himself,” said Freedom Party General Secretary Harald Vilimsky, who led a delegation from his party to the U.S. that met with Trump allies last month. “We deal with something similar in Austria.”

Polls ahead of the election pointed to a virtual tie, with Austrian voters torn between anger over the refugee crisis and frustration with their established political class on the one hand, and their unease with a party long seen as extremist by the political mainstream.

WSJ