Residents in Vienna say the runoff presidential election, in which Austrian voters rejected an anti-immigration candidate from the far-right Freedom Party, was good for Europe and that lawmakers need to do more to stop the wave of populism sweeping Western democracies. (Reuters)

There's a temptation to view the final result of Austria's presidential election as a clear win for the European Union and the continent's liberals. But that would be wrong.

On Sunday, center-left politician Alexander Van der Bellen scored a decisive victory over Norbert Hofer of the far-right, ultra-nationalist Freedom Party, claiming some 53.6 percent over the vote compared to Hofer's 46.4 percent. As my colleagues reported earlier, Hofer's appeal echoed the anti-immigrant populism seen in President-elect Donald Trump's successful campaign, as well as the anti-establishment anger that prompted British voters to opt for quitting the European Union.

A Freedom Party delegation visited the United States ahead of Austria's election and reportedly met with Michael T. Flynn, the retired general tapped to be Trump's national security adviser, in addition to other senior members of the Trump team.

Van der Bellen said his triumph was the result of a "broad movement" of people who supported a "pro-European Austria." At a time when right-wing nationalist and Euroskeptic politics seem to be in the ascendance across the continent — consider Italy's constitutional referendum, which was held on the same day — the Austrian presidential election was welcome news for European liberals.

"Finally, some hope for Europe," read an op-ed headline in Britain's Guardian newspaper.

But even optimists know it will be hard to paper over Europe's widening cracks. The fact that a candidate from a party first founded by Nazis was just percentage points from being a head of state ought to be a source of alarm.

"After all, 46% of Austria’s votes went to a man whose party was partly founded by Nazis with a record of antisemitism and an agenda of anti-Muslim bigotry," wrote Julia Ebner of the Quilliam Foundation, which monitors extremism in Europe. "The sheer fact that a country in the heart of Europe was so close to electing Europe’s first far-right head of state since the second world war is deeply unsettling."

The good news for liberals is that the anti-E.U. backlash may have its limits, including in Austria, where attitudes toward Brussels are currently slightly more negative than the European average.



"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," wrote my colleague Rick Noack. "Approval for the E.U. has recently been on the rise in five of the union's six most populous countries."

But at the same time, the attitudes and politics that fueled Hofer's candidacy aren't about to disappear. The Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial position. If parliamentary elections were held today, opinion polls suggest, the Freedom Party would stand to be Austria's largest party.

After Hofer's defeat, Heinz-Christian Strache, the Freedom Party's leader, wrote a Facebook post that sounded like a victory note: "2017 will be the year of the Freedom party," he said.

There are suggestions that tensions within the center-left and center-right governing coalition could prompt early polls next year; general elections are currently scheduled for 2018. If so, the challenge posed by the Freedom Party, not unlike that of France's far-right National Front, would dominate the election.

"The [Austrian presidential] election, therefore, should not be seen as the culmination of a political battle but the latest episode in a much longer story about a revolt against the liberal consensus. It is also distinctly unlikely to be the last," wrote Matthew Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent.

He went on: "Whether it is Hillary Clinton, the Remain camp during Britain's EU referendum or Van der Bellen in Austria, liberals now seem to be permanently on the defensive. Rather than setting out a positive case for their ideas and genuinely exciting voters they too often fall back on the less impressive strategy of having to point out flaws in their rivals."

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