VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s centrist government, shaken by a near-victory by the far right in presidential elections, said on Tuesday it would take action on immigration and boost security in an effort to win back voters.
The anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO), whose candidate lost by a whisker to an environmentalist, said it accepted its candidate Norbert Hofer had been defeated, but would examine what it called numerous reports of voting irregularities.
Europe’s political establishment, challenged in many countries by resurgent populist and anti-immigration parties, breathed a sigh of relief on Monday when postal ballots swung the election in favour of Alexander Van der Bellen in a dramatic photo-finish.
Hofer lost to Van der Bellen by less than one percentage point - a record performance for the party and a watershed for its allies across Europe. A win would have made him the first far-right head of state in the European Union.
“An election result is to be respected,” Hofer told a news conference, adding that he had congratulated Van der Bellen on his victory.
The president has a largely ceremonial role but swears in the chancellor and can dismiss the cabinet.
Van der Bellen told German public broadcaster ARD late on Tuesday that if a parliamentary ballot gave the Freedom Party the most votes but no overall majority, “I wouldn’t ask the head of this faction to try to form a government”.
This was because he was concerned about the FPO’s views on Europe.
Chancellor Christian Kern - thrust into the top job after a party rebellion forced Werner Faymann to resign as head of the government - said it was “absolutely clear” that the protest expressed in the FPO’s strong showing in the presidential ballot had to be taken seriously.
Though he said isolationism and euroscepticism were not options for export-dependent Austria, Kern promised action on five points, including asylum and security.
Austria took in 90,000 asylum seekers last year, more than 1 percent of its population, many of them shortly after it and neighbouring Germany opened their borders last autumn to a wave of migrants including many from Syria’s civil war.
“You will hear from us in the coming weeks,” he said, adding that the economy and jobs were also priorities and another aim was to hold a closed-door meeting with opposition parties on possible cooperation.
Frustration with traditional parties of government has fuelled Europe’s rising tide of populism, not least in Austria, where the Social Democrats and their coalition partner, the conservative People’s Party, have dominated for decades.
The coalition must work together until the next parliamentary election in 2018 or face the prospect of a snap vote that polls suggest the Freedom Party would win if it were held now.
FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache said the party had received many reports of irregularities in the presidential ballot and he did not rule out challenging some results.
“Only after an assessment can one say whether there is something in it, whether there is meat on the bone,” he said alongside Hofer at the news conference.
The party says the postal voting system is open to abuse. Of the roughly 750,000 valid postal ballots cast, 61.7 percent were for Van der Bellen.
Strache cited suspected discrepancies in counting, including one case the Interior Ministry announced on Tuesday, in which the number of ballots in one town was over-reported by around 6,000.
The ministry also noted it did not affect the overall result. The difference in the candidates’ percentages - 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent - amounted to just over 31,000 votes.
Reporting by Francois Murphy, Shadia Nasralla and Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich; additional reporting by Michelle Martin in Berlin; Editing by Richard Balmforth and John Stonestreet