Austria's Social Democrats scored a narrow upset victory over the ruling conservatives in a national election on Sunday that also brought a surge of rightist parties demanding a crackdown on immigrants.
Alfred Gusenbauer's Social Democrats leapt ahead of Wolfgang Schüssel's People's Party
Austria's Social Democrats won a surprise general election victory over Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel's ruling conservatives, who have run the country in a controversial alliance with the far right since 2000.
In one of the tightest election battles in decades, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) took 35.7 percent of the vote, giving them 68 seats in the 183-member parliament, while Schüssel's People's Party (ÖVP) won 34.2 percent, leaving it with 66 seats.
"We have reached our election goal: We are in first place," SPÖ leader Alfred Gusenbauer told his supporters shortly after the ballot results filed in late Sunday.
Schüssel, who was leading the popular polls prior to the election, congratulated Gusenbauer "with all my heart."
"I never expected this," the chancellor told his supporters while urging them to accept the result as "the voter is always right."
Handover of office
Schüssel's conservative ÖVP has governed Austria since 2000, when it formed a much-criticized ruling alliance with far-right nationalist Jörg Haider, then head of the Freedom Party. At the time, the decision drew international condemnation and seven months of sanctions from the European Union due to Haider's xenophobic policies.
Top candidate for the People's Party Wolfgang Schüssel
But Schüssel weathered the storm to create a center-leaning administration which weakened the firebrand Haider and bolstered the Austrian economy. In 2002 Schüssel won re-election with his People's Party gaining the most votes for the first time since 1966.
Sunday's election marks a surprise turn in Austria's politics after six years. For the first time since taking office, the ÖVP lost votes in an election: some eight percent overall and 10 percent in Vienna.
The stage is now set for the Social Democrats to form a coalition. SPÖ leader Gusenbauer will likely become the next chancellor, but there are still several scenarios open regarding the composition of a future government.
Coalition building begins
One possibility would be a grand coalition, joining the Social Democrats and the People's Party under Gusenbauer as chancellor. Another would see Gusenbauer leading an alliance between his party and the environmental Greens party, which took 10.5 percent of the vote
It is also theoretically possible that Schüssel could pull together enough votes to form his own coalition with the two right-wing parties, the Freedom Party and Haider's spinoff Alliance for Austria's Future party.
Jörg Haider helped his Alliance for Austria's Future to 4.2 percent of the vote
The extreme-right Freedom Party, which Haider left to form the Alliance for Austria's Future, campaigned on hardline anti-immigrant positions and received 11.2 percent of the vote, making it the third largest party after Sunday's elections. Haider's new Alliance just scraped into parliament with 4.2 percent of the vote.
Most observers, however, expect the days as a coalition member are numbered for Haider and the extreme right.
Gusenbauer told reporters he was confident of taking over the government. "If we don't get a majority with the Greens, there is only one option left: an alliance with the ÖVP."
The conservatives also see the left-right coalition as a real possibility. ÖVP parliamentary fraction leader Wilhelm Molterer indicated that his party was ready to work with the Social Democrats as a junior partner if a grand coalition was formed. "The responsibility now lies with SPÖ chief Alfred Gusenbauer," he said.