Austria's ruling parties set for worst poll result since 1945

AFP , Sunday 29 Sep 2013

According to the last opinion polls, the SPOe could expect 27-28 percent of votes and the OeVP 22-25 percent, which would be their poorest results since 1945

Head of the Freedom Party (FPO) Heinz-Christian Strache casts his ballot during the Austrian general election at a polling station in Vienna September 29, 2013 (Photo: Reuters)

Austrians voted Sunday in general elections that looked likely to keep the two-party centrist coalition in government, but possibly with their worst result since 1945 amid expected inroads by the far-right.

Although Austria has the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union, voters have been looking for an alternative to two parties that have dominated politics for the past 70 years and spent much of the past five years arguing or failing to agree on policy.

The Social Democrats (SPOe) and conservative People's Party (OeVP) -- sharing power since 2008 -- could even fall short of a majority in parliament, requiring them to find a third partner for the first time in the country's history.

According to the last opinion polls, the SPOe could expect 27-28 percent of votes and the OeVP 22-25 percent, which would be their poorest result since 1945.

"No clear alternative will emerge," political scientist Anton Pelinka told AFP.

Many voters, looking for change, have turned to the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) and the environmental Greens, as well as new, smaller groups like The New Austria (NEOS) and Team Stronach, the party of an 81-year-old Austro-Canadian billionaire.

This is partly due to a string of recent corruption scandals that have plagued many of the main parties.

The SPOe and OeVP -- led respectively by Chancellor Werner Faymann and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger -- have dominated Austrian politics since 1945, often in a so-called "grand coalition."

"I think Faymann is fine, there isn't anybody else who could do a better job at the moment anyway," Ulli, a 23-year-old student who voted for the SPOe, told AFP at a polling station.

Vanessa, 42, was more resigned: "I don't expect much. I'm just voting to support the democratic process... I wish there were some changes regarding the grand coalition, but I have little hope."

Key campaign issues have included taxes, pensions and unemployment -- even though Austria, largely sheltered from Europe's financial woes, has the lowest jobless rate in the European Union at 4.8 percent.

With an expected 20 percent of votes, the FPOe is bidding with the OeVP for second place. But it is unlikely to get a place at the coalition table after the outcry that followed its entry into government in 2000 under Joerg Haider, who had made headlines by praising Hitler's employment policies.

Now led by the eurosceptic but telegenic Heinz-Christian Strache, 44, the Islamophobic FPOe has campaigned on a platform of "Love thy Neighbour" -- if they are Austrian, that is.

The Greens, unsullied by corruption scandals, look like a better choice and could make their first foray into government with an expected 14-15 percent of votes.

"I believe we have the chance to push red-black (the SPOe and the OeVP's colours) under 50 percent and to have a new beginning with the Greens," party leader Eva Glawischnig said Saturday.

For voter Oliver Fritz, 42, a three-way coalition with the Greens was "the only sensible alternative."

"Red-black is over, they haven't achieved anything in the last five years, they have only fought... With the Greens in government, there will hopefully be some movement at last."

The person who grabbed the most headlines during the campaign was Frank Stronach, an auto parts magnate who made his fortune in Canada and has now vowed to save the country he left as a young man.

He started off strong but became an object of ridicule after a series of gaffes.

From 12 percent support last September, his Team Stronach is now expected to win just six-seven percent, although this will still be enough to enter parliament.

Whether the NEOS and the small far-right Alliance for Austria's Future (BZOe) can secure the necessary four percent is much less clear.

Polls opened Sunday at 7:00am (0500 GMT) -- although a handful welcomed voters earlier -- and were to close at 5:00pm. First results were expected shortly thereafter.

Some 6.4 million people, from the age of 16, are eligible to vote.

In the last general election in 2008, the SPOe won 29.3 percent of votes, followed by the OeVP with 26 percent. Turnout, always high in Austria, was 78.8 percent.

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