Two Austrian states are voting: One is set to stick to its conservative status quo, the other is likely to restore normalcy after far-right rule. A new player has also emerged, the 80-year-old billionaire Frank Stronach.
Austria will host four regional ballots and a national vote during the course of its "super election year." The process began on Sunday in the states of Niederösterreich (Lower Austria) and Kärnten (Carinthia), with a pair of simultaneous regional ballots.
The conservative ÖVP party looked set to maintain its close to two decades of control in Lower Austria in a state where the major newspaper Der Standard reported that "the other parties have not managed to offer anything substantial against them."
Opinion polls suggested that the only open question was whether ÖVP state premier Erwin Pröll would be able to maintain his party's absolute parliamentary majority.
Should Pröll and the ÖVP be forced to seek a coalition partner in Lower Austria, it would most likely be a result of Austria's new anti-establishment populist, Frank Stronach.
A new populist player
The 80-year-old billionaire, who made his fortune founding and running the auto parts company Magna, heads the new euroskeptic "Team Stronach" party. He campaigned on a heavy criticism of the common currency, saying he was standing for values like transparency and honesty, and claiming that these were lacking among the mainstream political parties. One slogan, pictured at the top of this article, simply read "because he knows how it works."
Stronach said he had turned to politics at a late stage in life because he wanted to "give something back" to Austria.
Whether it's Bepe Grillo's anti-establishment movement in Italy, freedom of information advocates like the Pirate Party in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, or a nationalist group like Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, a rejection of "mainstream politics" is currently a common populist theme across Europe.
Far-right decline in Carinthia
Carinthia was the Austrian region where the far-right BZÖ party founded by Jörg Haider, who died in 2008, scored a shock election win in 2009. The nationalist BZÖ, whose name is often translated as Alliance for the Future of Austria, won 44.9 percent of the vote in the last state vote.
Opinion polls suggest an open race in Carinthia, but a series of BZÖ corruption scandals have meant that public support for the party was likely to drop to between 20 and 26 percent. The same predictions pointed to the social democrat SPÖ as Carinthia's strongest single party, though they also looked set to fall well short of an outright majority.
Preliminary results for both states are expected early on Sunday evening.
msh/mkg (AFP, dpa)