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Austrian far-right triumphs in presidential vote

AFP , Sunday 24 Apr 2016
Austrian presidential Candidate Norbert Hofer of the right wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) and party head Heinz Christian Strache (left) pose at a TV studio in Vienna, on April 24, 2016. (Photo: AFP)
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Austria's anti-immigration far-right triumphed Sunday in the first round of a presidential poll, in a historic defeat for the traditionally powerful governing coalition parties two years before the next scheduled general election.

Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe) won 36 percent of the vote, preliminary results showed, with the candidates from the two centrist government parties failing to even make it into a second-round runoff on May 22.

"This is the beginning of a new political era," FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache said after what constitutes the best-ever result at federal level for the former party of the late Joerg Haider, calling it a "historic result".

"One thing has become clear here -- a huge and massive dissatisfaction with the government," Strache said.

"I am convinced that as president, Norbert Hofer will act as protector of the Austrian people."

The result means that for the first time since 1945, Austria will not have a president backed by either Chancellor Werner Faymann's Social Democrats (SPOe) or their centre-right coalition partners the People's Party (OeVP).

The OeVP's candidate Andreas Khol came equal fourth with 11 percent, level with the SPOe's Rudolf Hundstorfer.

Faymann said the result was a "clear warning to the government that we have to work together more strongly." He said however that his party would not make any personnel changes -- including with regard to his own position.

Facing Hofer on May 22 is likely to be Alexander van der Bellen, backed by the Greens, who was second with 20 percent, ahead of independent candidate Irmgard Griss, who won 18.5 percent.

Support for the two main parties, which have between them run Austria since 1945, has been sliding for years and in the last general election in 2013 they only just gained enough support to re-form their "grand coalition".

The rise of fringe parties has been mirrored across Europe, including in Spain, Britain and Germany, and also in the United States with the populist messages of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

Marine Le Pen, leader of France's National Front who is bidding to become president next year, tweeted her congratulations to the FPOe for its "magnificent result".

Leading opinion polls ahead of 2018 general elections with more than 30 percent is the FPOe, boosted by Europe's migrant crisis despite a firmer line in recent months from Faymann's government.

Last year Austria received 90,000 asylum requests, the second highest in Europe on a per capita basis.

Austria no longer has the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union and Faymann's coalition, in power since 2008, has bickered over structural reforms.

David Pfarrhofer from the Market polling institute said the traditional parties cannot continue "messing around" if they want to stay in power.

"It's not so much about personalities but about issues... Something needs to change if the SPOe and the OeVP want to avoid another debacle like this," Pfarrhofer told AFP.

Reinhold Mitterlehner, head of the OeVP, appeared to agree, saying late Sunday after the "disappointing" result that it was time to "relaunch" the coalition.

"This means in particular the bickering but also the content of what we are doing. I think this is the last chance to really do this," Mitterlehner said.

Having a president in the Habsburg dynasty's former palace in Vienna not from either of the two main parties could shake up the traditionally staid and consensus-driven world of Austrian politics.

Hofer -- the "friendly face of the FPOe" who likes to carry his Glock gun in public -- has threatened to fire the government if it fails to get tougher on migrants.

Van der Bellen, who will likely pose Hofer a stiff challenge on May 22, has said he would refuse to swear in Strache as chancellor in 2018 if his party comes first in elections then.

"The role is like that of a sleeping giant who has a lot more authority than people are aware of," legal expert Manfried Welan told AFP.

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