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Far Right Enjoys Gains as Social Democrats Win Austrian Election

Austria's Social Democrats won Sunday's elections ahead of the conservative People's Party, but the far-right Freedom Party made big gains, Interior Minister Maria Fekter said Sunday, Sept. 28.

Top candidate of the Alliance for the Future of Austria, BZOe, Joerg Haider, leader of the election campaign Stefan Petzner, and candidate Peter Westenthaler

Joerg Haider (left) and his BZOe far-right party were among those who made electoral gains

The Social Democrats (SPOe) took 29.7 percent while the conservatives (OeVP) secured 25.6 percent, according to official ministry results, which did not include absentee ballots.

The far-right, meanwhile, established itself as the third political force in Austria, with 18.0 percent for the Freedom Party (FPOe) and a surprising 11.0 percent for Joerg Haider's smaller Alliance for Austria's Future (BZOe).

The Greens had to settle for fifth place with 9.8 percent.

A total 15 parties were listed on the ballot in Sunday's election, the highest number in Austrian electoral history, but most of them did not pass the 4.0-percent threshold to get into parliament.

Participation stood at 71.4 percent, out of 6.3 million eligible voters, but some 586,700 absentees still had to be taken into account.

These were to be tallied in the next week with full final results expected on Oct. 6.

Heinz Strache, Wilhelm Molterer, Joerg Haider, Alex van der Bellen, Werner Faymann

Heinz Strache, Wilhelm Molterer, Joerg Haider, Alex van der Bellen, Werner Faymann

In the last general elections in October 2006, voter participation was 78.49 percent, including absentee ballots.

Far-right gains due to disillusionment

The far-right gains were the most worrying results of the election but experts said the parties got a massive boost because voters were frustrated with the centrist coalition parties and not because of the rightists' anti-immigration rhetoric.

Heinz Christian Strache from the Austrian Freedom Party, FPOE, and Jean-Marie Le Pen from the French Front National

Strache has aligned himself with people like Le Pen

The results for Heinz Christian Strache's FPOe were up seven percent from the last elections in 2006, while Haider's BZOe more than doubled its votes to 11 percent, from 4 percent in 2006.

"The main reason was that the government's dismal performance," political scientist Peter Gerlich of the Vienna University said, explaining voters' shift to the far right.

The coalition between Social Democrats and their junior partner, the conservative People's Party (OeVP), split in July after 18 months of bickering and political stalemate.

Experts also said the two parties were successful at portraying themselves as caring for lower-income voters worried about rising prices.

Although the Social Democrats pushed a package of social spending bills through parliament mere days before the elections, the Freedom Party had more credibility with social issues, Fritz Plasser of Innsbruck University said.

"Supporting the weak helped them," Plasser said.

Strache's anti-European Union rhetoric also resonated in a country where 47 percent of the population thinks Austria has not benefited from being an EU member.

But despite these factors, there is no denying that Strache's Freedom Party, and, to a lesser extent, Haider's Alliance, banked on voters' anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic sentiments.

Controversial electioneering

At Strache's final election rally in one of Vienna's working class districts last Friday, the crowd cheered loudest not when he spoke about social issues, but when he complained that foreigners were now allowed to live in social housing projects.

Joerg Haider

Haider made yet another comeback in Sunday's election

Haider suggested during the election race that all asylum seekers should be made to wear electronic tags to monitor their movements.

Although it is clear that both right-wing parties will play a bigger role in Austrian politics, both Social Democrats and Conservatives have so far ruled out forming coalitions with Strache or Haider.

"The SPOe will be somewhat tempted," to cooperate with the Freedom Party, Gerlich said. But his colleague Plasser said that such a coalition would create a deep split among Social Democrats.

There is also a rumor about a (Social Democratic) minority government with parliamentary support from the Freedom Party, Gerlich said.

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