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Europe

Left-leaning Van der Bellen to become Austria's new president

© Georg Hochmuth, APA/AFP | Austria's president-elect, Alexander Van der Bellen.

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2016-12-05

Independent candidate and former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen – affectionately known as "the professor" among his supporters – won Austria's presidential election on Sunday over right-wing populist Norbert Hofer.

A left-leaning candidate who preached tolerance on the campaign trail, Van der Bellen was the hope of Austrians who wanted to stop Hofer, head of the anti-migrant and anti-EU Freedom Party.

At 72, the grey-haired economics professor often cut a wooden and somewhat dishevelled figure on the campaign trail next to smooth-talking gun enthusiast Hofer, 45.

Nicknamed "Sascha", a holdover from his Russian roots, Van der Bellen struggled to win over many conservative voters who accused him of pandering to the left.

He was decried by some as a "communist" and even accused of having been a Cold War spy for the Soviet Union – claims Van der Bellen dismissed as "ridiculous".

And his trademark professorial manner often riled Hofer.

"I'm talking about Europe: E-U-R-O-P-E. Never heard of it?" Van der Bellen taunted his rival during a televised debate.

"My God, schoolmaster Herr Doctor Van der Bellen," an agitated Hofer replied.

Jessica Saltz reports from Vienna

Controversially, Van der Bellen once vowed not to swear in Freedom Party chairman Heinz-Christian Strache as chancellor even if his party won the next general election in 2018.

The remark, on which Van der Bellen later backtracked, prompted Hofer to call him the "green dictator".

The pro-European liberal nonetheless managed to beat Hofer by a thin margin in a May run-off, which was then annulled over procedural irregularities.

But it was his gentle manner that may have ultimately helped him win the presidency.

"Hofer is the offensive attacker who knows he can only score if he's not too aggressive, [while] Van der Bellen comes across as a nice, older gentleman," political analyst Peter Hajek told AFP.

'United States of Europe'

Van der Bellen was born during World War II in Vienna to an aristocratic Russian father and an Estonian mother who fled Stalinism.

The arrival of the Red Army a year later forced the family to escape to the southern state of Tyrol, where Van der Bellen spent what he described as an "idyllic childhood".

He studied economics at the University of Innsbruck and finished his PhD in 1970 before going on to become dean of economics at the University of Vienna.

Critics have accused Van der Bellen of being a "turncoat" because he was a member of the Social Democrats before joining the Greens in the early 1990s and eventually becoming their leader.

"I have made my way from being an arrogant anti-capitalist to a generous left liberal," he once said.

The Greens went on to achieve record results under Van der Bellen, but he resigned after the 2008 election when the party lost votes for the first time in almost 10 years.

He has said his European ideal is of a fence-free "United States of Europe".

An outspoken supporter of gay marriage, the divorced and recently remarried father of two has received strong backing from celebrities, artists and the country's top politicians.

Van der Bellen will be Austria's second-oldest head of state at the time of his election. But despite this, he has many young supporters who organised dance raves to support him.

His age, combined with a heavy smoking habit, has raised questions about his health. In late August, Van der Bellen was forced to dispel cancer rumours by releasing his medical records to prove that he had "wonderful lungs".

But he said he had no intention of giving up smoking.

"I once quit for four months ... but why should I torture myself at my age?" he asked.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

Date created : 2016-12-04

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