VIENNA (AP) — Shrugging off his unexpectedly clear defeat, the right-wing candidate for Austria's presidency said Tuesday he will run again in six years when the term of the left-leaning winner ends and a new election is held.
Norbert Hofer announced his renewed bid in 2022 as a count of absentee ballots ended. Combined with votes cast Sunday, the total tally slightly widened the margin between Hofer and victor Alexander Van der Bellen. The winner, who takes office in January, had nearly 54 percent of valid ballots cast, compared to just over 46 percent for Hofer.
Pollsters had depicted the election as too close to call ahead of Sunday and the vote had been watched anxiously by Europe's political middle as a proxy test of populist strength in other EU countries fielding strong euroskeptic candidates in elections next year.
On Tuesday, Hofer and other leading figures of his right-wing Freedom Party sought to put a good face on the loss — for Hofer, the second in less than a year to Van der Bellen.
Sunday's vote was a re-run, scheduled after a narrow victory by Van der Bellen in May was challenged as skewed by the Freedom Party and annulled by a court order as a result.
Asserting that all other political forces in Austria had joined together to prevent Hofer's victory, party leader Heinz-Christian Strache depicted the vote as a contest "between David and Goliath ... which David almost won."
"Never before ... has there been this kind of mobilization against a candidate," he told reporters.
Hofer, for his part, said he had been unfairly portrayed as someone pushing for Austria's exit from the European Union. Instead, he said "I support us backing the European Union's positive development" away from a political union and toward a loose federation of states focused mainly on economic cooperation.
While most Austrians are critical of the EU, the majority wants the country to remain part of it and Hofer's comments reflected his euroskeptic party's shifting stance on membership. Shortly after the British vote to leave the EU, Hofer said he could imagine a similar referendum vote similar in Austria within a year "if the union develops wrongly."
The Freedom Party's support includes Austria's neo-Nazi fringe, and it counts radical right-wing parties elsewhere in Europe as its allies.
But it now ranks as Austria's strongest political force, capitalizing on wide-spread disenchantment with established political parties to siphon off Austrians with moderate views — a development Hofer sought to emphasize. He described his party as "right of center but not extreme right."