Austria turns sharp right in elections

Austrians were bracing themselves for a sharp shift in the country’s political direction today after two far-right, anti-immigration parties made big gains in national elections.

At the same time the governing coalition of the Austrian People’s Party and the Social Democrats had their worst showings since the Second World War.

The two rightist parties – the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria – won a combined 29% in yesterday’s vote. Both advocate an end to immigration and the expulsion of foreigners and asylum seekers who commit crimes.

At least one could participate in a new government. Talks are expected to begin later this week and could drag on for months.

The right-wing parties had not been expected to consider joining forces, given the animosity between their leaders. But the firebrand Joerg Haider, who now leads the Alliance, said it was something worth thinking about. And Freedom Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache suggested he was interested in becoming chancellor.

“Today, we are the winners,” Strache declared.

In 1999 elections, the Freedom Party – then headed by Haider – won 27% of the vote and was included in the government, leading to months of European Union sanctions over statements seen as anti-Semitic or sympathetic to the policies of Adolf Hitler.

Analysts said the right’s resurgence came from Austrians disgruntled with the governing coalition – seen by many as out of touch because of their feuding.

And Social Democrat leader Werner Faymann has rejected the possibility of joining forces with either right-wing party.

Peter Filzmaier, a political analyst, said yesterday’s results did not mean Austrians were becoming more extremist.

“It’s not a question of ideology,” he said. “There’s lots of disappointment among workers, and there are no left-oriented parties to pick up those votes and so the right-oriented parties are able to do so.”

The centre-left Social Democrats won 29.71% of the vote, followed by the People’s Party with 25.61%. The two parties’ coalition fell apart in July over issues ranging from when to introduce tax reform to an apparent EU policy reversal by the Social Democrats.

The Freedom Party received 18.01% of the vote. The Alliance for the Future of Austria had 10.98%, preliminary results indicated.

A total of 183 parliamentary seats were at stake. If the preliminary results are confirmed, Strache’s Freedom Party will have won 35 – compared with 21 won in 2006 elections – while the Alliance will have 21 seats, up from seven.

The Social Democrats looked likely to lose 10 of their seats to 58, while the People’s Party would drop from 66 to 50 seats. If they resurrect their coalition, they could still govern without either of the far-right parties.

The Greens also lost ground, winning 19 seats compared with 21 previously after winning 9.79% of yesterday’s vote, according to preliminary results.

Some 4.5 million voters turned out, out of 6.3 million eligible to vote. The voters included 16- and 17-year-olds, after a new law lowered the minimum voting age. But it was too early to tell if those votes made a difference in the results, said Christoph Hofinger of the SORA Institute for Social Research and Analysis.

The SORA Institute said tens of thousands of traditional Social Democrat and People’s Party supporters stayed home. The Social Democrats lost 171,000 more votes to the Freedom Party and another 75,000 to the Alliance for the Future of Austria, while the People’s Party lost 149,000 supporters to the Alliance and 86,000 to the Freedom Party.

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