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Left-Leaning Candidate Narrowly Wins Austrian Presidential Election

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Austria came very close to electing a far-right, anti-immigration airplane technician as its new president today. In a cliffhanger of a race, he lost to an economist backed by the leftist Green Party. That has relieved many European leaders, but the results underscore how polarized some European countries have become. Joanna Kakissis begins our coverage in Vienna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: When economics professor Alexander Van der Bellen was finally declared president today, teacher Brigitta Eichhorn sang and celebrated in a Vienna courtyard.

BRIGITTA EICHHORN: I don't want my country to exclude other people. I want to live in an open country.

KAKISSIS: She was alluding to Norbert Hofer, the candidate from the far-right Freedom Party who ran on an anti-immigration integration ticket. He lost to Van der Bellen by just 31,000 votes. In his acceptance speech, Van der Bellen spoke of the division in Austria.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXANDER VAN DER BELLEN: (Through interpreter) It was nearly a 50-50 finish. It's a symbol that couldn't be clearer. We talked a lot about the separation between left and right, city and country, young and old. But I think we are equal, two parts and both parts equally important.

KAKISSIS: Political analyst Eva Linsinger says Van der Bellen is not exciting, but he seems thoughtful.

EVA LINSINGER: He thinks. He talks slowly. He thinks before he answers. Then sometimes he gives kind of complicated answers.

KAKISSIS: Ali Vakili, an Austrian doctor of Iranian descent, says he hopes Van der Bellen will help to change what he calls growing racism in Austria.

ALI VAKILI: They see your skin color. They see your hair color. And for them, you're just using the system and getting people's money, you know? They don't see what you actually do. They don't see how hard-working you are.

KAKISSIS: Renee Von Paschen, an Austrian-Canadian theater scholar, says many peole are unhappy about how the government handled the more than 90,000 asylum seekers in Austria last year.

RENEE VON PASCHEN: There's a definite polarization. The migrant crisis was managed very badly, and it wasn't acknowledged that it was going to be a problem early enough, and that has led to a certain degree of discontent.

KAKISSIS: That discontent helped bring the rise of the Freedom Party which Austrians call the FPO. Mario Zuzan, a salesman who joined the party two years ago, says that those who vilify the party do not understand Austria today.

MARIO ZUZAN: We reached 50 percent this election, so I don't think you can say the people are afraid of the FPO.

KAKISSIS: He says the party's neither racist nor xenophobic. He says it just wanted to preserve Austrian culture and keep out corrupt politicians.

ZUZAN: For me, it's important to - just to make sure that I've done everything to leave the country, to leave an environment for my kids which is worth to live in.

KAKISSIS: He says the Freedom Party is in Austria to stay. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Vienna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.