Alexander Van der Bellen, a retired economics professor backed by the Green party, defeated Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic Freedom party a day after polling closed and only once more than 700,000 postal ballots – about 10% of available votes – were taken into account.
In a post on Facebook, Hofer wrote: “Dear friends, I thank you for your fantastic support. Of course today I am sad. I would have liked to have watched out for you as president of our wonderful country.”
The Austrian interior ministry confirmed that after postal votes were counted, Hofer’s final score was 49.7%, against 50.3% for his rival Van der Bellen, a former Green party leader and the son of two wartime refugees.
The two were separated by just 31,000 votes out of more than 4.6 million ballots cast after finishing neck and neck in Sunday’s elections, when Van der Bellen collected 48.1% of direct votes and Hofer 51.9%.
Hofer urged his supporters not to be discouraged but to see the campaign as “an investment in the future”. Many Austrian websites were down under the weight of traffic as the country waited for news of the final result.
The Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial role but has some significant powers, including the authority to dismiss the government.
Mirroring the rise of populist parties across Europe, the Freedom party exploitedanti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment amid the continent’s refugee crisis, leaving a deep split over the direction Austria should now take.
In a reflection of voters’ dissatisfaction with mainstream politics, the candidates of both the centre-left Social Democrats and conservative People’s party, which have dominated Austria’s politics since the second world war, were eliminated in the first round of voting in late April.
Werner Faymann, the social democratic chancellor, resigned earlier this month. Viennese coffee houses reportedly set aside separate areas for supporters of the rival candidates over fears of clashes.
Muhannad Mohamad, 20, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Austria 18 months ago, was poised over a laptop in his Vienna flat. “Today they will choose the direction Austria will go in possibly for the next decades,” he said.
Van der Bellen’s father was born in Russia to a family descended from Dutch immigrants and his mother was born in Estonia, from where the couple fled when the former Soviet Union invaded in 1940, eventually settling in Austria.
A Vienna city councillor since leaving parliament in 2012, the staunchly pro-European Van der Bellen led the Austrian Greens from 1997 to 2008.
In contrast Hofer, whose cultivated, smooth-talking image has led to him being hailed “the friendly face” of the Freedom party, has said “Islam has no place in Austria” and warned if he was elected he would not hesitate to dissolve the government if it did not act against immigration.