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Mainstream relief as leftist candidate wins in Austria

VIENNA (AP) — Left-leaning Alexander Van der Bellen triumphed over his right-wing rival Sunday in the vote for Austria's presidency, a victory welcomed by moderate politicians across Europe as a blow against the populist forces looking to weaken the European Union.

While the Austrian presidency is a mostly symbolic post, it had attracted attention from across Europe as the next possible victory for populists after political outsider Donald Trump's presidential win in the United States and the Brexit vote in Britain.

"What happens here today has relevance for all of Europe," Van der Bellen said he cast his ballot, later noting that his win showed most voters backed his message of "freedom, equality, solidarity." With all votes except for absentee ballots counted, Van der Bellen had 51.68 percent of the vote to 48.32 percent for Norbert Hofer. But pollsters predicted a final result of 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent in favor of Van der Bellen once the approximately 500,000 absentee ballots were tallied. The final result of Sunday's vote was expected by Tuesday at the latest.

Van der Bellen said the win sends a "message to the capitals of the European Union that one can win elections with high European positions." He said he would work to unite a country deeply split between the moderate liberals who voted for him and supporters of Hofer's anti-immigrant Freedom Party.

Powerful euroskeptic populist politicians facing elections next year in other EU nations shrugged off Hofer's loss as a temporary setback, but the result was greeted with relief and congratulations by mainstream politicians.

French President Francois Hollande said Austrians "made the choice of Europe, and openness." Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, who heads Germany's center-left Social Democrats, told the Bild newspaper that "a load has been taken off the mind of all of Europe." He called the result "a clear victory for good sense against right-wing populism."

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said Van der Bellen "will represent Austria domestically and abroad in an excellent manner" — alluding to fears by establishment politicians that a victory by Hofer, whose anti-immigrant Freedom Party is critical of the 28-nation EU, would hurt Austria's image. Van der Bellen is liberal, left-of-center and pro-EU.

Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, called the victory a defeat for "anti-European, backward-looking populism." With polls estimating that the two candidates were neck-and-neck ahead of the vote, Van der Bellen's margin of victory was unexpected.

Political scientist Kathrin Stainer Haemmerle told the Austria Press Agency said that despite widespread disenchantment with establishment parties in Austria, the results show "the majority of the population is not looking for radical change."

Still, Van der Bellen's victory presages new possible divisions. The new Austrian president-elect has said he would refuse to swear in a government led by the Freedom Party. But with the Freedom Party given a good chance of winning the parliamentary election less than two years away, Van der Bellen might be forced to act on that pledge. If he is true to his word, he would plunge Austria into a political crisis with unforeseen consequences.

Hofer, meanwhile, conceded his loss in a Facebook posting. Acknowledging that he was "endlessly sad," Hofer said "I would have been happy to take care of our Austria." He urged voters of both camps to bury their differences and work together.

Appearing later with Van der Bellen, Hofer said his loss "is really very painful ... but the voter is always right in a democracy." Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen of France and anti-immigrant politician Geert Wilders in the Netherlands tweeted their support for Hofer as voting took place Sunday, then later made the best of his loss. The two, who both face their own national elections next year, congratulated Hofer on his strong showing.

Le Pen, who hopes to ride anti-immigrant, anti-EU sentiment to the French presidency, tweeted that Hofer and his Freedom Party "fought with courage." "Victory will be theirs in the next legislative election!" she added.

Congratulating Van der Bellen, EU Council President Donald Tusk said "the continued constructive contribution of Austria to finding common European solutions and keeping our European unity will remain essential."

In Germany, top opposition Green leader Simone Peter called Sunday's result "a good day for Austria and Europe." "The right-wing rabble-rousers have to be stopped!" Peter declared. The election Sunday was a rerun of a vote in May that Van der Bellen narrowly won. Austria's Constitutional Court ordered the repeat following a court ruling after Hofer's Freedom Party claimed widespread voting irregularities.

Philipp Jenne, Amer Cohadzic, Zenel Zhinipotoku, Florent Bajrami, Matteo Wick and Eldar Emric in Vienna and Geir Moulson in Berlin, Angela Charlton in Paris and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed to this report.