Alexander Van der Bellen, who preached moderation and tolerance, won Austria’s presidential election Sunday over right-wing populist Norbert Hofer, according to preliminary results that showed Van der Bellen convincingly ahead despite pre-vote polls showing them neck and neck.
The results, released shortly after the polls closed Sunday, showed Van der Bellen with 53.5 percent of the vote and Hofer having 46.4 percent.
While the final result will not be official until absentee votes are counted Monday, officials said the outstanding ballots will not change the outcome, even if the percentages of what the candidates won may vary.
Hofer conceded defeat shortly after polls closed.
“I am infinitely sad that it didn’t work out,” Hofer said in a posting on his social-media page less than an hour after polls closed and the first projections were broadcast.
The Austrian president’s functions are largely ceremonial and past elections have merited little attention outside the country because they were decided between mainstream candidates. This time, though, the contest was different because the vote Sunday was seen as an indicator of how well euroskeptic candidates will do elsewhere in the EU next year.
Van der Bellen is pro-European Union and represents liberal to left-of-center views while Hofer comes from the euroskeptic anti-migrant Freedom Party. Hofer’s campaign message has varied from hard-line when talking to Freedom Party supporters to more moderate when trying to woo undecided voters disenchanted with the political establishment.
Sunday’s election was a rerun of May’s, which Van der Bellen won by less than 1 percentage point. It was re-held following a court ruling after Hofer’s Freedom Party claimed widespread irregularities.
Van der Bellen on Sunday noted the outsize attention the election in Austria was receiving.
“What happens here today has relevance for all of Europe,” he said, before casting his ballot.
Other populist politicians in the EU who want their countries out of the bloc were supportive of Hofer ahead of elections they will face next year. Both far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen of France and anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands tweeted their support.
Hofer opted for a soft tone as he voted Sunday.
“I want to commit myself to changing this union in a positive way. And I don’t want Austria to leave the European Union, that I have to say very clearly,” Hofer said Sunday in his home village of Pinkafeld, south of Vienna. “(But) our strength is not to be an amorphous entity, our strength is diversity, a diverse European Union.”
His comments reflected his party’s modified message. With most Austrians critical of the EU but not to the point of wanting to leave it, the Freedom Party no longer suggests that Austria would be better off without Brussels. Instead, it is pushing for an EU of loosely allied members mostly sharing economic ties instead of a close political union.