Far-right candidate Norbert Hofer addresses a news conference in Vienna on May 24. (Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters)

Europe had braced for what could have been the election of the continent's first far-right president since World War II. But it was center-left contender Alexander Van der Bellen who tasted victory on Sunday. Vote projections showed Van der Bellen ahead of far-right rival Norbert Hofer, 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent.

It was an election campaign that should always have been Van der Bellen's to lose. The independent candidate, backed by the Green Party, had won an earlier round that was later declared invalid because of irregularities, prompting a second election.

And, yet, in the final days of campaigning, there was a sense of resignation among van der Bellen's supporters, who feared that Hofer could emerge the winner. Since the first round in May, populists have gained ground in Europe and elsewhere: Britain decided to leave the European Union in June, and Donald Trump was elected president in November.

To some Austrians, the “Trump effect” appeared inevitable. There was Van der Bellen: a rhetorically restrained establishment candidate and a big fan of the increasingly unpopular European Union. And there was Hofer, a far-right politician who nonetheless had mainstream appeal and had vowed a harsher stance against refugees.

Alexander Van der Bellen at a news conference in Vienna on Nov. 10. (Christian Bruna/European Pressphoto Agency)

Yet, on Sunday, all fears that the political dynamics of 2016 could easily make Hofer president were put to rest with Van der Bellen's victory.

The result might also be the biggest boost the European Union has received in a while.

That's because Austrians tend to be bigger E.U. skeptics than many of their neighbors, according to a poll by Dalia Research. Austrians are disproportionately likely to oppose an expansion of the European Union (25 percent compared with 15 percent across the bloc). There is also strong opposition to a free-trade agreement with the United States, until recently considered one of the European Union's most ambitious projects.

Overall, 39 percent of Austrians have a very negative or somewhat negative perception of the European Union.

 

Across Europe, 34 percent share that opinion.

Among Hofer's most prominent campaign promises were his opposition to increased Muslim immigration and free trade. Both are issues for which many in Austria have blamed the European Union or other member states such as Germany.

Although the president holds mostly ceremonial powers in Austria, Hofer had previously demanded a referendum on E.U. membership, comparable to the “Brexit” vote in Britain. Shortly after Britain voted to exit the European Union, however, he toned down his rhetoric amid fears that the subsequent economic uncertainty in Britain would cause a shift in public opinion that would ripple down to Austria and cost him votes. Ahead of election day, he said he was in favor of a referendum only if the bloc became more centralized.

Although the European Union is considered the main adversary of populists across the continent, Sunday's vote suggests that simply being opposed to everything the 28-nation bloc stands for does not ensure political gains. Because the European Union is involved in a multitude of policies, Austrians do not necessarily agree on what they dislike — and what should be done about it.

 

Sunday's result could be another indication that the appetite for more referendums on the European Union is in decline across the continent, after the chaotic repercussions of the June vote in Britain. Approval for the E.U. has recently been on the rise in five of the union's six most populous countries.

The only country where support has fallen is Spain. In Britain, a majority of the population would now vote to stay in the European Union, data by the Bertelsmann Foundation suggests. Austria was not included in the survey.


The Austrian election might also raise hopes in Berlin, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel has announced her bid for reelection next year. Like Germany, Austria took in a disproportionate number of refugees last year.

Although the refugee crisis helped Hofer gain support from all sides of the political spectrum, Austrians ended up voting for a president who has repeatedly demanded more compassion for refugees.

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