By Shadia Nasralla and Kirsti Knolle
VIENNA (Reuters) – Austrians’ desire to stay anchored in the European Union outweighed concerns over immigration and security and helped former Greens leader Alexander Van der Bellen defeat his far-right rival Norbert Hofer in Sunday’s presidential election.
Van der Bellen, whose win bucks a trend of populist victories across Western democracies, had put Britain’s decision to leave the EU at the center of his own campaign, warning voters not to “play with this fire”.
“I will be a pro-European president of Austria open to the world,” Van der Bellen, 72, said in his victory speech.
Hofer, whose Freedom Party (FPO) is anti-immigrant and eurosceptic, had suggested at one point in the campaign that Austrians could vote within months on whether to follow Britain out of the EU, though he later rowed back from the comments.
Austria’s economy is closely integrated with the rest of the EU, the destination last year of about 70 percent of its exports, worth some 91 billion euros ($96.81 billion).
“Austria, as a small and open economy, profits more than average from free trade and its integration into the European market,” said Georg Kapsch, head of Austria’s Chamber of Industry, when congratulating Van der Bellen on his victory.
A SORA survey published shortly after Britain’s vote to leave the EU in June showed about 70 percent of Austrians would have voted to “remain” in the bloc, which it joined in 1994.
Two-thirds of Van der Bellen’s supporters backed him because they thought he would represent them best abroad and because he supports the EU, a SORA survey conducted on Dec. 1-4 found.
This compared with 36 percent of Hofer voters who saw their man as a good representative abroad, SORA said.
“PRESIDENT OF CENTER”
“(Van der Bellen) is a president of the center and arguments relating to Europe, to jobs, were very strong reasons that made people understand this,” said Johannes Zweytick, a deputy mayor in the rural town of Ehrenhausen from one of Austria’s governing parties, the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP).
Some conservatives including the OVP leader backed Van der Bellen for the mainly ceremonial post of president despite their traditional scepticism about the Greens due to uncertainty over the stance of Hofer and his FPO towards the EU.
“People found this (ambiguity) irritating,” said Zweytick.
The FPO now says it favors Austria’s continued membership of the EU but says they would seek a referendum on the issue if the bloc became more “centralized” or if Turkey joined the EU – a very unlikely prospect any time soon.
Underlining its wariness on the issue of the EU, the FPO quickly distanced itself just before Sunday’s election from comments by Nigel Farage, former leader of the anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) and veteran supporter of Brexit.
Farage said he expected Hofer would push for a similar referendum in Austria if he became president.
“The FPO is neither for Austria’s exit from the EU nor does it want (to) build the EU into a United States of Europe with the loss of veto rights for member states,” it said.
Despite Hofer’s defeat, the FPO remains Austria’s most popular party and could play the leading role in forming a new coalition government after the next parliamentary election, which is due in 2018 but could come sooner.
Both Hofer and Van der Bellen ran as outsiders amid widespread dissatisfaction in Austria with the two main parties, the Social Democrats and Christian Conservatives, who have dominated politics in the wealthy Alpine nation for decades.
Europe’s migrant crisis has fueled support for the FPO as more than 120,000 people have sought asylum in Austria in the past two years, though the issue did not rank in the SORA poll as one of the main factors for voters backing Hofer.
(Editing by Gareth Jones)