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Close but no cigar for gun-toting Austrian right-winger with presidential aspirations -

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TONY EASTLEY: Right wing Austrian presidential wannabe, Norbert Hofer, could almost taste victory but the postal vote crushed his dreams.

As they say - close, but no cigar.

As we reported last night, Austria's gun-toting anti-immigration presidential contender had been aiming to become the European Union's first far-right head of state.

But he was pipped at the post by a former Greens Party leader turned independent.

NICK GRIMM: As the cliff-hanger vote count was still underway, European foreign ministers were gathering in Brussels for a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council.

It was there that Austria's representative was quizzed about what it would mean if his country were to elect as president the anti-immigration, Euro sceptic right-winger Norbert Hofer.

(Sebastian Kurz speaking)

“I can guarantee to all my colleagues,” Sebastian Kurz said, "that no matter what the outcome, I will help to keep Austria and responsible partner in Europe."

But the Austrian Foreign Minister might have wondered what help he'd be able to offer amid the speculation that a victorious Norbert Hofer would move to use his presidential powers to dismiss the Austrian government to help secure the election of his own Freedom Party to the nation's parliament.

In the end though, Mr Hofer won't get the chance to prove or disprove prognostications like that.

(Wolfgang Sobotka speaking)

“The votes are distributed as follows to the candidates,” Austria's Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka said at the official election announcement, going on to reveal, “Norbert Hofer won just 49.7 per cent of total.”

His opponent Alexander Van der Bellen only marginally ahead on 50.3 per cent but enough for Mr Sobotka to declare:

“At this point, I congratulate the newly elected president on his election."

Alexander van der Bellen won by just 31,000 votes and the former Greens Party leader turned independent is under no illusions about the challenge he faces leading a nation that's deeply split.

ALEXANDER VAN DER BELLEN: (translation) Austria has experienced eventful hours. This election has probably left no one in Austria untouched. The result is an even bigger responsibility, for me as the future President of the Federal Republic of Austria, but also I'd say for Mr Hofer.

NICK GRIMM: Austria's presidential election polarised the nation after the main centrist parties were bundled out in the first round of voting.

It left Alexander Van der Bellen the obvious choice for Austrians in favour of the remaining part of the European Union and for humane policies towards refugees.

Norbert Hofer meanwhile, a champion of the far-right, exploited anti-immigration and anti-Muslim sentiment among Austrians.

At times he campaigned wearing a handgun, something he was forced to defend on election day this week, in the wake of a mass shooting in Austria.

JOURNALIST: Do you think there should be more gun control in Austria?

NORBERT HOFER: Our laws are okay because most of the incidents are with illegal guns, you know. You have to - it's okay in Austria like it is.

NICK GRIMM: At a rally in the lead up to the vote, Norbert Hofer expressed his manifesto thus:

NORBERT HOFER (translation): All those people who don't appreciate our country, those who are for Islamic State and war or who rape women, I tell these people this is not your homeland, you can't remain in Austria.

Because we clearly distinguish those who further build Austria together with us from those who only want to destroy this country.

NICK GRIMM: At his own rally Alexander Van der Bellen offered this:

ALEXANDER VAN DER BELLEN (translation): This is about this country deciding its course. A decision between an open, Europe-friendly, Europe-conscious Austria that we can be proud of, and something else, of which we don't want to say too much, but which is small, bordered off, something put in reverse, and we don't want that.


NICK GRIMM: But Austrians agreed by only the slimmest of margins.

(Voter speaking)

As this voter put it, “Van der Bellen should have campaigned more in the border regions where there were refugee problems, instead they voted for Hofer in overwhelming numbers. That's why Hofer was so successful.”

Back in Brussels the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, acknowledged the election outcome is the latest sign Europe's anti-establishment parties are steadily gaining in influence.

FEDERICA MOGHERINI: It is obvious that it's only at the level of common policies that we can the challenges we are facing.

NICK GRIMM: And with opinion polls showing that Norbert Hofer's Freedom Party would win parliamentary elections if they were to be held now, his supporters believe it is just a matter of time before it's their turn to celebrate victory.

Austria's next general election is due to be held in 2018.

TONY EASTLEY: Nick Grimm reporting.