Image: Alfred Gusenbauer
Miro Kuzmanovic  /  Reuters
Austria's Social Democrats Party leader Alfred Gusenbauer celebrates with supporters at their party headquarters in Vienna on Sunday.
updated 10/1/2006 5:13:45 PM ET 2006-10-01T21:13:45

Austria’s opposition Social Democrats won nationwide elections on Sunday, swinging the country to the center-left after more than six years of influence by the extreme right, final unofficial returns showed.

With all but absentee ballots counted, the center-left bloc had 35.7 percent of the vote and the People’s Party trailed with 34.2 percent, Interior Minister Liese Prokop said.

Although Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel did not formally concede the election, he congratulated the leader of the Social Democrats, Alfred Gusenbauer, who would likely become the country’s next chancellor. “We are a democratic country,” Schuessel said.

Schuessel said he didn’t blame anyone for the disappointing results, saying: “I carry the main responsibility for my party and I do that with conviction.”

Gusenbauer, meanwhile, declined to proclaim outright victory, saying he would wait for all the votes to be counted. Officials said there were about 250,000 valid absentee votes to be tallied between now and Oct. 9, when the final results must be certified.

“I never gave up hope. I always said there would be a surprise on Sunday,” he said. “The people in Austria are of the opinion that yes, we’re a rich and well-off country but it’s not all distributed fairly enough and therefore people have the need for a correction.”

Employment problems a top priority
Among other things, the Social Democrats have promised to lower the number of unemployed by 100,000 and reduce salary differences between men and women. The party had been in opposition since 2000 following more than three decades as the top vote-getter in Austrian elections.

The current governing coalition is made up of the People’s Party and the rightist Alliance for the Future of Austria, which had vowed during the campaign to reduce the number of foreigners in Austria by 30 percent over the next three years.

Immigration had been a central theme of the campaign, with bitter debates over how to integrate foreigners into Austrian society.

The far right Freedom Party, which finished third with 11.2 percent of the vote, had pushed for the immediate deportation of all asylum seekers and other foreigners who commit crimes and argued that the number of foreign children whose mother tongue is not German should be capped at 30 percent in certain public schools.

'A fairer society'
The Greens finished fourth with 10.5 percent of the vote, and the Alliance for the Future of Austria captured 4.2 percent, just over the threshold needed to remain in parliament.

“Austrians have voted for a fairer society. They’re looking for a much stronger commitment to the well-being of all citizens,” said Paul Nyrup Rasmussen, president of the Brussels, Belgium-based Party of European Socialists.

“It’s the start of a new era, and Austria can leave behind the international embarrassment of a coalition with the far right,” he said.

In 1999, the Freedom Party’s stunning 27 percent win in national elections — and its subsequent inclusion in the government — sparked months of EU diplomatic sanctions because of concerns over statements by then-leader Joerg Haider perceived as anti-Semitic and sympathetic to Nazi Germany’s labor policies.

The main parties have ruled out including the Freedom Party in a new coalition.

President Heinz Fischer said he would meet on Tuesday with party heads, though it was unclear when he would ask the winner to form a new government.

Sunday’s turnout was about 74 percent of Austria’s 6 million eligible voters.

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