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Defeated Right-wing Austrian President Hopeful Urges Unity

  • Associated Press

FILE - Norbert Hofer (r) candidate for presidential elections of Austria's Freedom Party, FPOE, talks to Alexander Van der Bellen (l) candidate for presidential elections and former head of the Austrian Greens during the release of the first election results of the Austria presidential elections in Vienna, Austria, April 24, 2016.

FILE - Norbert Hofer (r) candidate for presidential elections of Austria's Freedom Party, FPOE, talks to Alexander Van der Bellen (l) candidate for presidential elections and former head of the Austrian Greens during the release of the first election results of the Austria presidential elections in Vienna, Austria, April 24, 2016.

The right-wing candidate who narrowly lost to a left leaning rival in the Austrian presidential election urged his supporters Tuesday to respect the result and show tolerance to those with different political views.

With only a little more than 30,000 votes determining who won, however, his Freedom Party held open the option of asking for a recount.

Norbert Hofer was ahead after polls closed Sunday. But a count of more than 700,000 absentee ballots completed Monday swung the result and the final count showed Alexander Van der Bellen as the winner with 50.3 percent, compared to 49.7 percent for Hofer.

Hofer's party had not ruled out calling for a recount of the absentee votes going into a meeting Tuesday. Speaking afterward, Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said the party had received substantial "diverse information'' on possible irregularities.

"One can only say after an evaluation whether there is anything to it ... of substance,'' Strache said, adding that a recount would be demanded only if the probe revealed "anomalies'' that could have decided the outcome.

Sunday's voting was viewed Europe-wide as a proxy fight pitting the continent's political center against its growingly strong populist and Eurosceptic movements. The outcome was cheered by the continent's established parties, while Europe's right hailed what it cast as a major political surge by one of its own.

Like the right elsewhere on the continent, Hofer's Freedom Party has turned from past polemics to exploiting anti-EU sentiment and fears of a migrant invasion to gain political strength.

The party's first head after World War II was a former Nazi officer but anti-Semitic outbursts by leading members has now become a thing of the past.

At the same time, the Freedom Party continues to count the extreme-right fringe among its supporters while gaining in appeal to mainstream voters frustrated by what they view as the inability of established parties to deal with migration, unemployment and other concerns.

Mindful of the international consternation over his strong showing, Hofer on Tuesday sought to dispel worries.

"The FPO is not an extreme-right party,'' he said. "An extreme right-wing party might have achieved a 2 percent result in Austria.

"We are a center-right party with a high degree of social responsibility. And that's why it was possible to achieve 50 percent of the votes in this election.''

Hofer asked all "Austrians to stick together,'' joining efforts by Van der Bellen to overcome the ideological divisions that led to the close contest.

"We are all Austrians,'' he said. "And there's room for many opinions in Austria. And that's also the essence of democracy — which is that there are people who have different convictions.''

Van der Bellen, a former Greens party leader who ran as an independent, quit the party after his win was announced, and declared that both political camps together make up "this beautiful Austria.''

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