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Austria stunned by far-right's election gains

The future course of Austria's government was in doubt Monday after two far-right, anti-immigration parties made big gains in elections while the governing coalition lost seats in Parliament.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The future course of Austria's government was in doubt Monday after two far-right, anti-immigration parties made big gains in national elections while the governing coalition lost seats in Parliament.

The conservative Austrian People's Party and the Social Democrats, who form the governing coalition, had their worst showings since World War II.

Two rightist parties — the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria — capitalized on voter discontent and got a combined 29 percent in Sunday's balloting. Both parties advocate an end to immigration and the expulsion of foreigners and asylum seekers who commit crimes.

At least one of the far-right parties could end up part of a new ruling coalition. Talks on a new government are expected to begin later this week and could drag on for months.

The People's Party called a meeting for Monday afternoon amid speculation that leader Wilhelm Molterer would step down after his party's disastrous results.

On paper, a role in a new coalition seemed within the right's grasp.

In 1999 elections, the Freedom Party — then headed by rightist firebrand Joerg Haider — won 27 percent of the votes and was included in the government, leading to months of European Union sanctions over statements seen as anti-Semitic or sympathetic to the labor policies of Adolf Hitler's.

Protest votes?
But analysts said their resurgence basically came from protest votes cast by Austrians disgruntled with the current center-right governing coalition — seen by many as out of touch and even infantile because of their off-and-on feuding.

And Social Democrat leader Werner Faymann has rejected the possibility of joining forces with either right-wing party.

Peter Filzmaier, a leading political analyst, said Sunday's results did not signal that Austrians were becoming more extremist.

"It's not a question of ideology," he said. "There's lots of disappointment among workers, and there are no left-oriented parties to pick up those votes and so the right-oriented parties are able to do so."

Interior Minister Maria Fekter said the center-left Social Democrats won 29.71 percent of the vote, followed by the People's Party with 25.61 percent. The two parties had been part of a so-called grand coalition that fell apart in July over a series of issues ranging from when to introduce tax reform and an apparent EU policy reversal by the Social Democrats — triggering the early election.

Will far-right parties join forces?
The election's biggest winners were the far-right parties, whose performance together was close to the count for the Social Democrats. The Freedom Party received 18.01 percent of the vote, while the Alliance for the Future of Austria had 10.98 percent, preliminary results indicated.

The right-wing parties had not been expected to consider joining forces, given a past of frequent squabbling and animosity between the two party leaders. However, Haider, who now leads the Alliance, said it was something worth thinking about, and Freedom Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache suggested he was interested in becoming chancellor.

"Today, we are the winners," Strache declared.

A total of 183 parliamentary seats were up for grabs. If the preliminary results are confirmed, Strache's Freedom Party will have won 35 — compared with 21 won in 2006 elections — while the Alliance will have 21 seats, up from seven.

"I'm very disappointed because it's a big victory for the right wing, and I think it's not a very good thing for Austria," said Thomas Herz, a Vienna businessman.

Muslim graves desecrated
Authorities in western Austria said Monday that 90 graves at a Muslim cemetery were defaced over the weekend, and that right-wing extremists were suspected. It was unclear whether the vandalism was politically motivated.

The Social Democrats looked likely to lose 10 of their seats to have 58 in the new parliament, while the People's Party would drop from having 66 to 50 seats. If they manage to resurrect their coalition, they could still govern without either of the two far-right parties as a partner.

The Greens also lost ground, winning 19 seats compared with 21 previously after winning 9.79 percent of Sunday's vote, according to preliminary results.

The results did not yet include absentee ballots or those turned in at polling stations outside the voter's home district. A final tally is not expected before Oct. 6.

Some 4.5 million voters turned out Sunday, out of 6.3 million eligible to vote. However, about 96,300 ballots were thrown out as invalid, the interior minister said.

The voters included 16- and 17-year-olds, after a new law lowered the minimum voting age.

‘Very dramatic’
But it was too early to tell if those votes made a difference in the results, said Christoph Hofinger of the SORA Institute for Social Research and Analysis. Hofinger and other experts had downplayed their possible impact in the run-up to the elections.

The SORA Institute said tens of thousands of traditional Social Democrat and People's Party supporters stayed home on Sunday. The Social Democrats lost 171,000 more votes to the Freedom Party and another 75,000 to the Alliance for the Future of Austria, while the People's Party lost 149,000 supporters to the Alliance and 86,000 to the Freedom Party.

Molterer described the People's Party's steep loss as "very painful" and "very dramatic."