Austria's Sanders beats its Trump: Green party independent defeats anti-immigrant far-right in presidential election

Some are calling Austrian President-elect Alexander Van der Bellen the world's first Green head of state

Published May 23, 2016 7:27PM (EDT)

Alexander Van der Bellen   (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)
Alexander Van der Bellen (Reuters/Heinz-Peter Bader)

The Austrian Bernie Sanders just beat Austria's Donald Trump in an explosive presidential election.

Alexander Van der Bellen, an independent backed by Austria's Green party, narrowly beat Norbert Hofer, a far-right politician from the anti-immigrant Freedom Party.

Van der Bellen won by just 31,000 votes, out of 4.6 million, with 50.3 percent of the total.

President-elect Van der Bellen, 72, led Austria's Greens for a decade. Some are calling him the world's first elected Green head of state.

Hofer would have been Europe's first overtly far-right head of state elected since the end of World War II. He ran a xenophobic, anti-migrant campaign, exploiting the ongoing refugee crisis.

"The rhetoric in the campaign had been fierce at times," BBC noted.

Van der Bellen insisted Austria should not be "the first country in western Europe led by a populist right-wing, pan-Germanic fraternity member." He asked voters "who don't like me but perhaps like Hofer even less to vote for me."

Hofer had worn the German colors of the far-right, nationalist Marko-Germania student fraternity. At his swearing-in as the Freedom Party presidential candidate, BBC noted, Hofer wore a cornflower in his lapel — a Nazi symbol in the 1930s.

Reuters pointed out that the far-right Freedom Party "has its roots in Austria’s Nazi past, a history the country has not confronted as openly as Germany."

Hofer helped draft the new hyper-nationalist Freedom Party manifesto, which maintains that Austria must preserve its “identity” — "that’s code for native Austrians, not immigrants or their children," British right-wing newspaper The Telegraph reported.

Van der Bellen won in nine out of Austria's 10 main cities. Hofer took more votes in rural areas.

Notably, the gender divide between the two was striking. The left-wing candidate, Van der Bellen, got 60 percent of women's votes, whereas the far-right candidate, Hofer, got 60 percent of men's votes.

The Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial position. Most of the power is concentrated in the hands of the chancellor. Yet the president can potentially play a bigger role in politics than they have traditionally.

President-elect Van der Bellen says he will address the increasing "divisions" among Austrians, at a time of rising xenophobia and racism.

"People can be different and still treat each other respectfully," he added.

Van der Bellen, a retired economist who taught at Vienna University, is the first environmental activist to become president of Austria.

He was elected to parliament as a Green in 1994, and was the party's spokesperson from 1997 to 2008.

Van der Bellen opposes TTIP, the secretive neoliberal free trade deal the E.U. is negotiating with the U.S.

Molly Scott Cato, a British member of European Parliament and a Green herself who has seen the secret trade pact, has said TTIP is an Orwellian agreement written by and for corporations.

The Freedom Party said it was optimistic about the election results, adding "we are very, very well placed for parliamentary elections."

Hofer wrote on Facebook, " The effort in this election campaign is not wasted, but is an investment for the future."

France's far-right National Front party, which was founded by a Holocaust denier and has established itself as one of the country's biggest parties, applauded its fascistic parallel in Austria.

"This historic performance is certainly the precursor of future success for all patriotic movements, both in Austria and around the world," the National Front said.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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Alexander Van Der Bellen Austria Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Green Party Norbert Hofer