Green candidate narrowly beats far-right in closely watched Austrian election

By Global Times Source:Xinhua Published: 2016-5-24 23:48:01

Austrians narrowly rejected a possible far-right president in the 2016 presidential election.

Alexander Van der Bellen, backed by the Green Party, was elected to be the next president by a narrow margin, according to Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka's announcement on Monday.

In the neck-and-neck race, Van der Bellen got 50.3 percent of the ballot, only 31,026 votes more than the 49.7 percent garnered by Norbert Hofer of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPO). The intense presidential election was closely followed in Austria and abroad.

Van der Bellen was born in Vienna in 1944. His grandfather was a politician who once lived in Russia but left the country with family to settle in Austria.

In 1976, he was appointed associate professor at the University of Innsbruck and then became professor of economics at the University of Vienna.

Van der Bellen started his career as a politician by joining the Social Democratic Party (SPO), but he switched to the Green Party, became its chief, then resigned after the September 2008 election. In 2010, he became commissioner of the City of Vienna for Universities and Research.

Van der Bellen is the first environmental activist to become Austrian president, and will be the first president of the state since WWII not backed by mainstream political parties.

Austria's president is seen as a ceremonial role but swears in the chancellor and can dismiss the cabinet powers not used by presidents since the world wars.

Meanwhile, Norbert Hofer conceded defeat.

Hofer wrote on his Facebook account: "I will remain loyal to you (the public) and make a contribution to a positive Austria. Please do not be discouraged, the use of this election campaign is not lost but an investment for the future."

Current Austrian President Heinz Fischer joined numerous domestic and international leaders and officials in congratulating his successor Van der Bellen.

Fischer said he is convinced the former Greens party leader will meet the challenges he will face in his new role.

"A main component of this will be to both unite and to represent all Austrians, particularly where differences of opinion are to be found," he said, adding he "absolutely" trusts Van der Bellen to be able to do.

Fischer invited Van der Bellen for talks on Tuesday. The official handing over of office between the two will take place on July 8.

With FPO only narrowly losing in the presidential election on Monday, the result revealed the split of the nation of Austria in the election and marked a strong increase in support for the right-wing party that some fear could resonate further in Europe.

Both Hofer and FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache appeared to remain upbeat following the confirmation of the result.

Strache called Hofer an equal "winner" with almost 50 percent of the vote, saying the FPO would continue on the path it has taken. "This is just the beginning, the beginning of a new democratic-political age," he said.

The Alternative for Germany (AfD), a party similar to FPO, also appeared buoyed by the FPO effort, with party official Joerg Meuthen calling the result "outstanding."

Although Austrians succeeded in rejecting a possible right-wing party president in the election, it is clear that there has been growing support for right-wing parties in Austria and in Europe in recent years, according to analysts.

The FPO has been on the fringe of Austria politic map for a long time but has taken the spotlight in resent years. It unprecedentedly won in the first round of the presidential election, where opposition was still split between more mainstream parties. The regional election also saw a rapid growth of the number of supporters of the right wing party.

Over the past years, the slow economic growth and rising jobless rate in European states disappointed many Austrian people who placed hope upon the resolution that the EU could provide. The eurozone crisis also made some people skeptical of the necessity of the ruling coalition in Austria, especially the failure to put forward an united migration policy. The new president will face the challenge of uniting a deeply divided country.

The article is a commentary from the Xinhua News Agency.

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