VIENNA (AP) — Austria’s new president called Thursday for a tolerant and diverse nation free of ideological and racial hatred in an inauguration speech that embraced the ideal of a united Europe.
President Alexander Van der Bellen outlined a vision markedly different from that offered during campaigning by his right-wing rival Norbert Hofer, the populist he defeated last month after an unprecedented repeat vote.
Hofer had campaigned on a law-and-order platform in line with his Freedom Party’s opposition to Muslim immigration, its focus on Austrians first and its depiction of the European Union as an out-of-touch institution damaging the sovereignty of national states that needs to be radically weakened, if not abolished.
In contrast, the left-leaning Van der Bellen rejected nationalism Thursday in favor of a “common Europe as a project of peace.” He urged equal treatment for all Austrians, whether “their families live here for generations or not … whether they love men or women, and whether they are men or women.”
The presidency is a mostly symbolic post. But Van der Bellen’s victory was welcomed by established European political parties fearful of the next possible victory for populists after Donald Trump’s presidential win in the United States and Britain’s Brexit vote.
While acknowledging that “change … also generates fear,” the rumpled-looking 72-year-old invoked the need for Austrians to embrace a rapidly evolving world, declaring: “Confidence is stronger than doubt.”
And he noted the need to never forget the “darkest side of our Austria” — the Nazi horrors the country was complicit in. His comments came a day ahead of Holocaust Commemoration Day on Friday, which marks the 72nd anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.
Van der Bellen’s inauguration was attended by legislators of all parties. Hofer, one of three presidents of the Austrian parliament, joined in the applause for the new president — breaking ranks with most other members of his Freedom Party, who sat stone-faced.