Pro-EU Van der Bellen becomes the face of Austria

VIENNA (Reuters) - A sigh of relief went through Europe when independent Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly beat his far-right rival Norbert Hofer for the Austrian presidency in May, diplomats said.

Austrian presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, who is supported by the Greens, reacts during a TV show in Vienna, Austria, December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Van der Bellen repeated the feat on Sunday -- the first vote was annulled because of sloppy counting -- again keeping Hofer from becoming the European Union’s first far-right head of state and prompting what might be an even bigger sense of relief after the rise of populists across Western democracies.

“From the beginning I fought and argued for a pro-European Austria,” he said after Hofer conceded defeat.

The 72-year-old Van der Bellen was born to a Russian father and an Estonian mother who fled from the Soviet Union to Germany and eventually settled in Austria.

He describes Austria as his homeland, but he has also said he grew up as an “immigrant child” in the rural Alpine province of Tyrol. He spent a quarter of a century in academia and held a professorship in economics.

In the 1970s, he was a member of Austria’s Social Democrats, and he has acknowledged voting for the Communist party as a young man. He eventually joined the environmentalist Greens, a party he went on to lead for 11 years, until 2008.

A fan of American crime novels who sports a three-day beard, Van der Bellen campaigned for the largely ceremonial role of president on his support for the European Union. His strategy pushed Hofer, a leader of the Freedom Party (FPO), to accuse him of wanting to degrade Austria to a province of the EU.

“I would think it a big mistake to promote the drifting apart of the European Union,” Van der Bellen has said.

Arguing that Austria’s staying in the EU helps economic growth in the export-dependent country of 8.7 million people, Van der Bellen won over conservative voters who might not have naturally gravitated towards a former Greens politician.

“I want to be a president of the center,” Van der Bellen has said. “Some wanted to assert that the presidential election (was) a vote between two extremes. I must object to this: I stand in the middle of society.”

Editing by Larry King