Austrian far-right triumphs in presidential election

Austrian far right Freedom Party (FPOe) presidential candidate Norbert Hofer waves with Austrian flags during a rally in Vienna.
Austrian far right Freedom Party (FPOe) presidential candidate Norbert Hofer waves with Austrian flags during a rally in Vienna.PHOTO: REUTERS

VIENNA (AFP) - Austria's anti-immigration far-right triumphed Sunday in the first round of presidential elections, dealing a wake-up call to Vienna's cosy political establishment two years before the next scheduled general election.

Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe) won 36.7 per cent of the vote, projections showed, with candidates from the two governing parties failing to even make it into a runoff on May 22, projections showed.

The result, if confirmed, means that for the first time since 1945, Austria will not have a president backed by either the Social Democrats (SPOe) or their centre-right coalition partners the People's Party (OeVP).

The SPOe's candidate Rudolf Hundstorfer came joint fourth with just 11.2 percent, level with Andreas Khol of the OeVP.

It was the best-ever result at federal level for the FPOe, whose entry into government in 2000 under the late SS-admiring Joerg Haider sent shock waves through Europe.

Facing Hofer on May 22 will instead be either Alexander van der Bellen, backed by the Greens, who garnered 19.7 percent, or independent candidate Irmgard Griss, a former judge hoping to be Austria's first female president, who won 18.8 percent.

The only candidate who fared worse than the main parties' candidates was Richard Lugner, an 83-year-old construction magnate and socialite married to a former Playboy model 57 years his junior, who won 2.4 per cent.

Support for the two main parties, which have between them run Austria since 1945, has been sliding for years and in the last general election in 2013 they only just garnered enough support to re-form their "grand coalition".

"Like elsewhere in Europe, we are witnessing the downfall of the traditional parties," said political analyst Peter Hajek.

Leading opinion polls ahead of 2018 general elections with more than 30 percent is the FPOe, boosted by Europe's migrant crisis despite a firmer line in recent months from Chancellor Werner Faymann's government.

Austria no longer has the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union and Faymann's coalition, in power since 2008, has bickered over structural reforms.

"In the past, the presidential election focused on personalities but this year political issues have also come into play. Hundstorfer and Khol will have to pay for their parties' failings," said Karin Cvrtila of pollster OGM.

Heads could roll in the current government if neither candidate makes it into the run-off, she said before the results were announced.

Having a president in the Habsburg dynasty's former palace in Vienna not from either of the two main parties could shake up the traditionally staid and consensus-driven world of Austrian politics.

Hofer - the "friendly face of the FPOe" who likes to carry his Glock gun in public - has threatened to fire the government if it fails to get tougher on migrants.

Van der Bellen has said he would refuse to swear in FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache as chancellor in 2018 if his party comes first in elections then.

"The role is like that of a sleeping giant who has a lot more authority than people are aware of," legal expert Manfried Welan told AFP.

"I can only say that I have a good feeling that things are looking good," Hofer said as he cast his vote on Sunday morning.