Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent Green candidate, has been elected as Austria’s new president, narrowly defeating Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) by some 30,000 votes.
The far-right candidate has conceded defeat.
On Sunday, after all votes except absentee ballots had been counted, Hofer was provisionally on 51.9%, while Van der Bellen was on 48.1%, a gap of about 144,000 votes. Projections had the two tied on 50% apiece, forcing the result to be decided by absentee ballots. Van der Bellen gradually closed the gap, winning more than 60% of the postal ballots. He finally edged ahead by 31,026 votes, and won the election with 50.3% of the total vote share, according to official figures. Voter turnout was 72.7%, higher than in the previous two elections.
Van der Bellen's election marks the first time since 1945 that the country’s presidency is not held by a candidate backed by one of Austria’s two main parties — the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP).
The role of the president is mostly ceremonial, though this is in part due to convention and tradition. Successive heads of state have simply reflected the will of the nation’s parliament, with the president acting as a nonpartisan figurehead. The bulk of executive and legislative power in Austria is held by the country’s parliament and government, with the latter headed by the chancellor.
Pre-election polls had pointed to a Hofer victory. He would have become the first democratically elected far-right head of state in Western Europe since the end of the Second World War. The FPÖ currently commands a double-digit lead in polls over the two parties of government. Although a general election is not due until 2018, many analysts believe the current government will not last that long. Hofer topped the first round of the presidential election on 24 April with 35% of the vote, more than the combined SPÖ and ÖVP total. Van der Bellen made the second-round runoff after winning 21% of the vote.