Austria's far right claim presidential election was RIGGED after their gun-toting anti-immigration candidate is narrowly beaten on postal votes
- Initial results showed the presidential election run-off was neck and neck
- Independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen has 'emerged as winner'
- Norbert Hofer, from the Freedom Party, is said to have conceded defeat
- But his party's supporters immediately said the result was a fix
- Hofer had 49.7 per cent of the vote to Van der Bellen's 50.3 per cent
Austria's far right last night claimed the country’s presidential election was rigged after their anti-immigration candidate was narrowly beaten in the knife-edge poll.
Norbert Hofer was on course to become Europe's first far-Right leader since the Second World War and was ahead by a narrow margin as votes were counted on Sunday night.
But yesterday it was declared he had missed out by just 31,000 votes among the 4.64million cast after a record 700,000 postal ballots were added in.
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Austria's Far-Right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer (centre) has conceded defeat in his election bid to become the EU's first anti-immigrant leader
Alexander Van der Bellen waves after delivering a statement following the Austrian presidential elections run-off, outside the Palais Schoenburg, in Vienna,
Supporters of the controversial Freedom Party candidate, who has ridden to prominence on a wave of public anger over immigration, immediately denounced the result as a fix.
Mr Hofer, who won 49.7 per cent of the vote, lost out to Alexander Van der Bellen, a pro-EU independent backed by the Greens, who secured a paper-thin victory with 50.3 per cent support.
Despite Mr Hofer’s loss, the close result is a rude wake-up call for the continent’s established parties.
In a message posted on Facebook, Mr Hofer expressed his disappointment but described it as a step forward ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections in 2018 that opinion polls regularly suggest his part could win.
‘Of course I am sad,’ the 45-year-old wrote to supporters, but added: ‘Please don't be disheartened. The effort in this election campaign is not wasted, but is an investment for the future.
'I would have liked to take care of our wonderful country for you as president,' he added.
Concerns over immigration have become a major issue in the country of just 8.6million people that received 90,000 asylum seekers last year and is expecting a further 75,000 this year.
Mr Hofer, who often carries a Glock pistol for 'protection', used his last pre-election gathering to deliver a message with anti-Muslim overtones.
At his swearing-in as Freedom Party candidate, he wore a cornflower in his lapel, which was a Nazi symbol in the 1930s.
Supporters of presidential candidate Alexander Van der Bellen hugged as they awaited official confirmation of the results
The Austrian Interior Ministry said this afternoon that Hofer received 49.7 per cent of the vote while Van der Bellen received 50.3 per cent. Van der Bellen supporters are pictured celebrating
Most observers had thought that Mr Van der Bellen, 72, would fail to beat his polished younger rival after lagging 14 points behind him in the first round of voting on April 24.
‘But in the last 14 days, there has been such a momentum among voters... (across) all sections of society,’ Mr Van der Bellen said after polls for the second round run-off closed on Sunday.
Mr Hofer toned down his party’s election message to win voters across the spectrum disillusioned with the mainstream parties in the current government that have dominated national politics since 1945.
Coalition partners, the Social Democrats and the centre-right People's Party suffered a historic debacle in the first round when they were knocked out with 11 percent each. The shock defeat prompted chancellor Werner Faymann to quit.
The vote in Austria has unsettled leaders elsewhere in Europe, particularly in neighbouring Germany where the new anti-immigration Alternative for Germany is on the rise.
French Prime Minister Manual Valls on Monday voiced 'relief' over the razor-thin victory.
Mr Van der Bellen, left, and Mr Hofer, right, were pictured shaking hands as the polls showed they were level
'Relief to see the Austrians reject populism and extremism,' Valls tweeted about the result from Sunday's cliff-hanger vote. 'Everyone in Europe should learn from this.'
In France, the National Front of Marine Le Pen is leading in polls ahead of a presidential election next year.
In the first round on April 24, the candidates of the Social Democrats (SPOe) and their centre-right coalition partners People's Party (OeVP), came a disastrous fourth and fifth with just 11 percent of the vote.
That meant that for the first time since 1945, these parties, which have long dominated politics in one of the EU's most stable democracies, had to watch the second round from the sidelines.
This was also the final straw for Werner Faymann of the SPOe, who quit as chancellor on May 9.
His successor, railways boss Christian Kern, was appointed last week, with two years to win voters back from the arms of the far-right before the next scheduled general election.
He said the work of his supporters during the election is 'not lost but an investment in the future'.
Mr Hofer, right, was slightly ahead of his rival in the polls but Van der Bellen has emerged as the winner
Greens Party politician Alexander Van der Bellen, front, second right, ran as an independent candidate
Experts had suggested the postal votes could favour Mr Hofer today as they were more likely to be cast by older people who are more Right-wing.
A huge influx of asylum-seekers, rising unemployment and frozen reforms has driven voters away from the two centrist parties that have dominated Austrian politics since 1945.
AUSTRIA'S NEW PRESIDENT - A MAN WHO DREAMS OF A 'UNITED STATES OF EUROPE' WITHOUT BORDERS AND BOASTS OF BEING THE SON OF MIGRANTS
Fans affectionally call him 'the professor' or 'Sascha', a diminutive of Alexander in reference to his Russian roots, while his critics decry him as a haughty 'green dictator'.
Instead of healing Austria's political rift, Alexander Van der Bellen has proved as divisive a figure in the country's nailbiting presidential race as his far-right rival.
Despite backing from the nation's most illustrous personalities including Chancellor Christian Kern, the ex-Green party leader struggled to convince many conservative voters, who accused him of pandering to the left.
Instead of healing Austria's political rift, Alexander Van der Bellen (pictured) has proved as divisive a figure in the country's nailbiting presidential race as his far-right rival
But he managed to beat the odds to pip Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe) by a paper-thin margin of just 31,000 votes.
'He's the lesser evil of the two,' was a commonly heard phrase at polling stations in Vienna, and Van der Bellen even used this pitch to undecided Austrians.
'I ask all those who don't like me but perhaps like Hofer even less to vote for me,' he had pleaded ahead of Sunday's runoff.
'Otherwise we run the risk of not recognising Austria if Norbert Hofer becomes president.'
At 72, the grey-haired economics professor often cut a somewhat dishevelled and tired-looking figure next to the FPOe's gun-enthusiast Hofer, 45, who walks with a cane after a paragliding accident.
But first impressions can be misleading.
Van der Bellen's decade-long career as leader of the Greens Party until 2008 has turned him into an agile and at times aggressive opponent in debates.
'I don't want that Austria becomes the first country in western Europe led by a populist right-wing, pan-Germanic fraternity member,' he told voters.
He also vowed to not swear in Strache as chancellor if the FPOe, currently ahead in polls, wins the next general election scheduled for 2018.
The remark prompted Hofer to call him a 'fascist green dictator'.
Increasingly sharp exchanges between the two men often degenerated into political mud-slinging, highlighting their glaring differences over issues like the migrant crisis.
Fans affectionally call him 'the professor' or 'Sascha', a diminutive of Alexander in reference to his Russian roots, while his critics decry him as a haughty 'green dictator'
Van der Bellen revealed he himself was a 'child of refugees who has received a lot from Austria'.
He was born on January 18, 1944 in Vienna to an aristocratic Russian father and an Estonian mother who had fled Stalinism.
The arrival of the Red Army a year later forced the family to escape to the southern state of Tyrol, where Van der Bellen spent an 'idyllic childhood'.
He studied economics at the University of Innsbruck and finished his PhD in 1970 before going to to become dean of economics at the University of Vienna two decades later.
Van der Bellen's professorial manner has become a familiar feature, often riling Hofer.
'I'm talking about Europe: E-U-R-O-P-E. Never heard of it?' Van der Bellen taunted his opponent during a TV duel.
'My God, the schoolmasterliness, Herr Doctor Van der Bellen,' an agitated Hofer shot back.
Adversaries have also accused Van der Bellen of being a 'turncoat' because he was a member of the Social Democrats before joining the Greens in the early 1990s and eventually becoming their president.
Under his leadership, the party went on to achieve record results, but he quit after the 2008 election when the Greens lost votes for the first time in almost 10 years.
As Austrian president, he dreams of a fence-free 'United States of Europe', which defends the rights of minority groups.
An outspoken supporter of gay marriage, the divorced and recently remarried father-of-two garnered signatures from more than 4,000 public figures in the course of his presidential campaign.
This prompted a seemingly unimpressed Hofer to attack his rival for being too highbrow: 'You have the glitterati, but I have the people,' he snapped.
In his private life, Van der Bellen admits to two weaknesses: Donald Duck comics and cigarettes.
'I once quit for four months... but why should I torture myself at my age!', he said.
Presidential candidates backed by the Social Democratic Party and People's Party were eliminated in last month's round, marking the first time neither were to be president since the end of the war.
His popularity reflected deep disillusionment with the political status quo and their approach to the migrant crisis and other issues.
Both men drew clear lines between themselves and their rival as they went into Sunday's race.
At his final rally Friday, Van der Bellen, pictured, said he was for 'an open, Europe-friendly, Europe-conscious Austria'
He added today that he was 'pro-European' but 'had doubts' whether Mr Hofer was of the same opinion
The pair, left and right, faced an agonising wait until today when the remaining postal votes were counted
At his final rally Friday, Van der Bellen said he was for 'an open, Europe-friendly, Europe-conscious Austria'.
Asked as he arrived to vote today what differentiated him from Hofer, Van der Bellen said: 'I think I'm pro-European and there are some doubts as far as Mr Hofer is concerned.'
Hofer, in turn, used his last pre-election gathering to deliver a message with anti-Muslim overtones.
'To those in Austria who go to war for the Islamic State or rape women - I say to those people: 'This is not your home',' he told a cheering crowd.
THE GUN ENTHUSIAST SEEN AS THE 'GOLDEN BOY' OF AUSTRIA'S FAR-RIGHT
He has been described as the new golden boy of Austria's far fight.
Norbert Hofer is a smooth-talking gun enthusiast who sent shock waves through the political establishment by defying polls and shooting to the top of the first round of a presidential ballot earlier this year.
Described as the 'friendly face' of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), the 45-year-old caught everyone by surprise, not least the country's centrist parties whose candidates failed to even make it into the run-off over the weekend.
Many voters disgruntled with the ruling coalition, made up of the Social Democrats (SPOe) and conservative People's Party (OeVP), flocked to Hofer and his promise of 'putting Austria first'.
Well-dressed and soft-spoken, the self-proclaimed Margaret Thatcher fan pushed traditional FPOe themes like anti-immigration with a smile, using more moderate rhetoric than party leader Heinz-Christian Strache.
'Hofer could set a new trend for the FPOe by being so unbelievably moderate in his tone and coming across as so nice in public appearances... It fits into the FPOe's strategy to target the middle ground of the electorate,' political expert Thomas Hofer told AFP.
The father-of-four carries a Glock pistol under his suits and likes to post pictures of himself on social media at shooting ranges
Hofer's polished campaign, based on the slogan 'Unspoilt, honest, good', proved a hit with the masses, earning him a whopping 35 percent in the vote's first round - the FPOe best-ever result at federal level since 1945.
The ex-deputy parliamentary speaker at first refused to join the race because he felt 'too young'.
The FPOe's new star often walks with a cane after a paraglide accident - something Hofer highlighted during his campaign as a sign of his sheer determination and will.
'He always gives 100 percent. Already as a child, he wanted to do everything right,' his mother Gertraud told Austrian media.
The trained aeronautical engineer has had a slow but steady climb to the top of the FPOe leadership the past two decades.
Born on March 2, 1970 into a middle-class family, Hofer grew up as the son of a local OeVP councillor in Burgenland, the country's least prosperous state close to the Hungarian border.
After a short stint working for the now-defunct Lauda Air airline, Hofer joined the FPOe's Burgenland branch in 1994 and became party secretary two years later.
Moving up through the ranks, he later became a close advisor to Strache who took over the party reigns from the charismatic Joerg Haider in 2005.
Under the new leadership, the party initially grew more extremist and re-introduced racist slogans.
Norbert Hofer (pictured casting his vote) has lost his bid to become the first Far Right candidate to be elected head of state on the Continent since the defeat of the Nazis
When this failed to translate into votes, Hofer, along with FPOe Secretary General Herbert Kickl, advised Strache to adopt a more moderate course and focus on social welfare and purchasing power, to steal support from the traditional parties as the economic crisis hit.
The move paid off, with the FPOe now consistently scoring more than 30 per cent in polls ahead of the next scheduled general election in 2018.
But despite his amiable appearance, Hofer is a true-blue member of the far-right who has repeatedly reminded the electorate that he defended 'Freedom party interests'.
'Islam has no place in Austria,' he warned voters, while also threatening to fire the government if it failed to get tougher on migrants.
The Oesterreich tabloid described him as 'a kind, nice protest politician who wraps the FPOe's brutal declarations against refugees in soft language'.
An avid social media user, his Instagram account shows the father-of-four - who has admitted to occasionally carrying a Glock gun in public - at a shooting range with his children.
'I just love to shoot,' he declared in a recent interview, adding that he understood the rising trend of gun owners in Austria 'given the current uncertainties'.
His fans include Austrian extreme sports daredevil Felix Baumgartner who hailed Hofer's young age, saying he 'was the only one able to represent Austria appropriately'.
Gun enthusiast Hofer, who was left partially disabled after a paragliding accident, has denied that he posed a risk as president.
'I am not a dangerous person,' he told reporters Sunday after voting in his home town of Pinkafeld, in the eastern Burgenland state.
The elections are reverberating beyond Austria's borders, with Hofer's popularity viewed by European parties of all political stripes as evidence of a further advance of populist Eurosceptic parties at the expense of the establishment.
In Austria, they would upend decades of business-as-usual politics, with both men serving notice they are not satisfied with the ceremonial role most predecessors have settled for.
Van der Bellen says he would not swear in a Freedom Party chancellor even if that party wins the next elections, scheduled within the next two years.
Hofer threatened to dismiss Austria's government coalition of the Social Democrats and the People's Party if it failed to heed his repeated admonitions to do a better job - and cast himself as the final arbiter of how the government is performing.
Political isolation for Austria may have been in the offing in the event of him winning. Hofer is unlikely to have been welcomed in most European capitals as governments there try to keep their populist Eurosceptic parties in check.
It would not have been been a first for Austria. President Kurt Waldheim, who was backed by the centrist People's Party, was boycotted internationally decades ago after revelations that he served in a German unit linked to atrocities in the Second World War.
Ahead of the vote, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned 'there will be no debate or dialogue with the far-right'.
He is also known for wearing a controversial blue cornflower on his suits (pictured). Adopted by his Freedom Party, Nazis also used to wear it to recognize each other when their party was banned in the 1930s
No single country in Europe has elected a Far Right leader since the Second World War - a reminder of Europe's bloody history at the hands of facism
Back in 2000, more than 150,000 people marched in the Austrian capital against the FPOe - then led by the late, SS-admiring Joerg Haider - after it entered a much-maligned coalition with the centre-right.
This also led to international isolation and turned Austria into an EU pariah.
But times have changed, with eurosceptic and populist parties now posing a serious threat to traditional centrist governments.
In Austria - the receiver of some 90,000 asylum requests last year - the main parties have been haemorrhaging support to the FPOe, which consistently scores more than 30 percent in opinion polls.
The demise means the Social Democrats (SPOe) and centre-right People's Party (OeVP) could fall short of being able to re-form their 'grand coalition' at the next scheduled election in 2018.
In the last vote three years ago, they only just managed to secure a majority.
Although former Green Party leader Van der Bellen enjoyed backing from many public figures including new Chancellor Christian Kern, he has been a divisive figure, with conservative Austrians accusing him of pandering to the left.
'It's a choice between pest and cholera. Whoever wins, I will wake up on Monday to somebody whom I don't want to represent Austria,' said a mother-of-two in her thirties, refusing to give her name, after she cast her vote in Vienna.