"I am not a dangerous person," the far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer told journalists on Sunday — as he cast a ballot for himself, in the Burgenland town of Pinkafeld. Hours later, Austrian media reported that Hofer and his flagrantly xenophobic Freedom Party were leading in national polls, by 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent.
Analysts in Austria and abroad predicted that the country was about to elect Europe's first far-right head of state since World War II.
But on Monday afternoon, Hofer conceded defeat on his Facebook page. Instead, the country's new president will be Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old Green Party-backed candidate, after winning 50.3 percent of the vote to Hofer's 49.7 percent.
Van der Bellen's victory margin was less than 31,000 votes, in an election that saw around 4.6 million ballots cast.
Until the final hour, the public broadcaster ORF was reporting a near tie between the two candidates — with a provisional vote count showing Hofer slightly ahead. But Van der Bellen was declared the winner after roughly 750,000 absentee postal ballots were counted.
While the result will draw relief from across the continent, the fact millions of Austrians cast votes for a far-right candidate whose party platform rails against an impending "Islamization" of Austria remains ominous for the future of Austrian politics.
Hofer's strong showing is indicative a broader shift in Austria, as the country's previously entrenched centrist parties have collapsed and politics has polarized. In April, the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right People's Party were both cut from the presidential race after failing to gain enough votes in a first-round vote. The two parties have governed Austria since 1945 — at times in coalition.
Some observers predict that the close race might also trigger early parliamentary elections, which are currently scheduled for 2018.
In televised debates, Norbert Hofer often appeared soft-spoken, even bashful. The 45-year-old with a penchant for tailored suits has a background in aeronautical engineering. But he is widely perceived to be as wolf in sheep's clothing — offering a glossy, telegenic façade to the traditional far-right politics that have attracted Austrian voters to varying degrees for decades.
In the last year, in the face of Europe's ongoing refugee crisis and around 90,000 people applying for asylum in Austria, the Freedom Party has seized on the issue of immigration, campaigning for Austria to shut its borders and whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment. In a nation of less than 8.5 million people, Austria has one of the highest rates of asylum applications per capita in Europe.
According to exit poll results, Van der Bellen won many of Austria's largest cities, such as Vienna, Graz, and Salzburg, while Hofer dominated the countryside.
Votes were also broadly cast along gender and employment lines. According to data commissioned by ORF, 60 percent of those who voted for the Freedom Party were male, while women were proportionally more likely to vote for the Green-backed candidate. Manual workers were also more likely to vote for Hofer than white-collar workers, with over 85 percent of the Freedom Party's vote reportedly coming from the manual labor sector.
The Freedom Party's recent resurgence has been seen by many as part of a broader European shift to the far right. In the last two years, a number of such parties have increased support, weaving together strands of far right populism with anti-immigrant sentiment and criticism of the European Union, which is typically described as bloated and incompetent.
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