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Austrian right-wing candidate plans fresh run for presidency in 2022

The right-wing candidate for Austria's presidency has shrugged off his unexpectedly clear defeat, saying he will run again when the term of the left-leaning winner ends and a new election is held.

Norbert Hofer announced his renewed bid for the post in 2022 as a count of absentee ballots ended.

Combined with votes cast on Sunday, the total tally slightly widened the margin between Mr Hofer and victor Alexander Van der Bellen.

The winner, who takes office in January, had nearly 54% of valid ballots cast, compared to just over 46% for Mr 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 eurosceptic candidates in elections next year.

On Tuesday, Mr Hofer and other leading figures of his right-wing Freedom Party sought to put a good face on the loss - for Mr Hofer, the second in less than a year to Mr Van der Bellen.

Sunday's vote was a re-run, scheduled after a narrow victory by Mr Van der Bellen in May was challenged 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 Mr 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 mobilisation against a candidate," he told reporters.

Mr 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 towards a loose federation of states focused mainly on economic cooperation.

While most Austrians are critical of the EU, the majority want the country to remain part of it and Mr Hofer's comments reflected his eurosceptic party's shifting stance on membership.

Shortly after the British vote to leave the EU, Mr Hofer said he could imagine a similar referendum vote 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, capitalising on wide-spread disenchantment with established political parties to siphon off Austrians with moderate views - a development Mr Hofer sought to emphasise. He described his party as "right of centre but not extreme right".

AP

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