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Too Close To Call, Austrian Presidential Election Could Mean Far-Right Presidency


The far-right candidate in Austria's rerun presidential election today, Norbert Hofer, has apparently gone down in defeat. The vote was closely watched as the latest test of the anti-establishment populist sentiment sweeping Europe and the U.S. The projected winner is Alexander Van der Bellen, a left-leaning independent. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Vienna covering the vote and joins me on the line. Hey, Soraya.


CHANG: So how big does Van der Bellen's victory seem to be?

NELSON: Well, with more than 80 percent of the vote counted at this point - that point, we're looking at 53.3 percent for Van der Bellen and another 46.7 percent for Norbert Hofer. And this is - we're talking about 6.5 percentage points, which is certainly a lot more than the less than 31,000 votes that separated the two last time. It's important to note that Van der Bellen did win the last election as well, which was held back - it was a runoff, basically, back in May. But it was invalidated by Austria's constitutional court because the - of vote counting and postal ballot irregularities.

CHANG: Why was Van der Bellen's margin of victory greater this time? You talked to people on the streets. What shifted?

NELSON: Well, it seemed like even though there was an amazing amount of voter fatigue - because you have to understand that this campaign season went on for a year, which is just extraordinary by Austrian standards, and it was a very nasty campaign. But people seemed determined to go out and vote and vote their conscience and make sure that they had a president that they felt comfortable with.

I mean, that's what - certainly what people were telling me, the ones who would actually admit to who they voted for. The people here are very private. It's a little bit different than when you talk to folks in the States after a vote. So - but it's - everyone was saying that they just didn't feel that Norbert Hofer would send the right message. They didn't want Austria to appear as if it was shifting to the right, certainly not by that level that was being projected with Mr. Hofer.

CHANG: What were, beyond that, the specific issues in this race? Because I understand that the Austrian presidency is largely ceremonial, right?

NELSON: It is. I mean, it's an elected post, so there is a popular mandate, but it is not one where the president makes lots of decisions, you know, unilaterally. I mean, this is something that the chancellor and the parliament would do more of. But the issues were that Norbert Hofer, he was very appealing, he was very charismatic. And he also spoke to people's concerns about unfettered migration here.

I mean, there were a lot of Muslim - particularly Muslim migrants that were coming into Austria and moving - some of them moving north to Germany and Scandinavia a couple of summers ago. And the feeling was - at least what Hofer was sort of feeding on was this idea that somehow if anybody else came to power but him that there would be more of these people coming, and that this was somehow affecting their financial security in the country, that sort of thing. And that really played with a population that was starting to feel very disconnected from its government.

That's something that's happening in a lot of countries in Europe at the moment. And so this was something that appealed. But then on the other hand, you had this - I mean, it was a strange election because you didn't even have somebody from the major parties that were running against each other. It was somebody who was an independent from - formerly of the Green Party, you know, at one extreme of the political spectrum, and then this guy. So - yeah, so it was a very unusual election.

CHANG: We'll have to leave it there. Thank you so much. That was NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.