VIENNA (Reuters) - Jubilant supporters clambered onto tables to welcome Austria’s new president Alexander Van der Bellen to his post-election celebration on Sunday night, giddy with relief that the former Greens leader had clearly beaten his far-right opponent.
“Thank god for this result,” said Iraqi refugee Mahmoud, as Van der Bellen entered the room at a fashionable Vienna hotel to the strains of Queen’s ‘We are the Champions’.
“Thanks for walking this very, very, very long path with us,” read a message from Van der Bellen on a giant screen.
Austria’s far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer was soundly defeated on Sunday, confounding forecasts of a tight election in which he would ride a wave of populism sweeping the West.
With only postal ballots left to count, a projection by pollster SORA for broadcaster ORF showed Van der Bellen on 53.3 percent and Hofer on 46.7 percent.
Supporter Harald Retschitzegger said he could finally breathe a sigh of relief, after witnessing Austria’s longest-ever election campaign which dragged on for months.
“I’m full of hope, this is a good thing for Austria, for promoting peace, for being open to all people,” said the 52-year-old with a temporary “I love Van der Bellen” tattoo on his shaved head.
Austrians are glad to put behind them the comedy of errors that meant the election dragged on for almost a year, prompting some media to label the country a “banana republic”.
The election was a re-run of a May vote that was overturned due to counting irregularities.
“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it!,” said 60-year-old Veronika Baig, who works in education.
“Now it is possible for us to have a pluralistic society. Not to divide and to exclude,” she added.
Although Austria’s president traditionally has a largely ceremonial role, the election was a test of populist sentiment in Europe ahead of elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands next year.
Supporters of Hofer’s anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) tried to put a brave face on their defeat, hailing the fact that they had found support among nearly half of the electorate.
“Of course I’m disappointed,” said Dimitrij Grieb, who joined the FPO in the 1990s.
“If anybody had told me back then that I would live to see an FPO candidate in a presidential run-off election, I would have said, that’s absurd.”
This election broke the monopoly centrist parties have had on Austria’s highest office for decades.
Editing by Alexandra Hudson
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