Far-right party fails to wrest control of Vienna in city elections

Vienna's long-time mayor, Mr Michael Haupl (left), and his challenger, Mr Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom Party, talking after elections in Vienna on Sunday.
Vienna's long-time mayor, Mr Michael Haupl (left), and his challenger, Mr Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom Party, talking after elections in Vienna on Sunday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Social Democrats retain mayor's office in polls seen as a referendum on migrants

VIENNA • Austria's far-right Freedom Party, propelled by the refugee crisis in Europe, came closer than ever to wresting control of Vienna from the Social Democrats, who have led the city since 1945. But the Social Democrats held on to the mayor's office in municipal elections on Sunday and proclaimed the result a triumph of "humanity and decency" over hostility to migrants.

The Austrian capital has been such a centre-left bastion that it is known as "Red Vienna", and the balloting on Sunday was widely watched across Europe as a sort of referendum on acceptance of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have poured into the continent.

The Austrian chancellor, Mr Werner Faymann, a Social Democrat, joined Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany early last month in throwing open their countries' borders to thousands who were then trapped in Hungary.

Social Democrats waiting in a tent in the city centre burst into celebration when preliminary results were announced by the Austrian public broadcaster ORF. With 97 per cent of the ballots counted, the Social Democrats won the mayoralty and the most seats on the city council with 39.5 per cent of the vote, compared with 31 per cent for the Freedom Party.

The margin between the two parties was greater than most opinion polls had forecast. But the Freedom Party still made its best showing ever in the city, up five percentage points from the last city elections in 2010. Critics said the party campaigned largely on fear of the foreign influx and an uncertain future.

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Humanity and a social policy of decency won.''

MR HARRY KOPIETZ, a leader of the Social Democrats, told jubilant supporters after the results were announced

Mr Heinz-Christian Strache, a dental technician who has led the party nationally for almost a decade, conceded on national television that he had missed his goal of becoming Vienna's mayor. But he insisted: "I am honestly happy with the result."

Mr Michael Haupl, 66, who has been mayor for 21 years, seemed relieved that his Social Democrats had limited their losses to just under five percentage points. The mood in the party's tent was buoyant. "Humanity and a social policy of decency won," Mr Harry Kopietz, a party leader, told jubilant supporters.

Populism and nationalism have been rising across Europe, with the notable exception so far of wealthy Germany. But the Freedom Party's share of the vote was high even by more recent standards.

"For a European state, 31 per cent is sizeable," said Mr Hans Rauscher, a columnist for the liberal Vienna newspaper Der Standard. Mr Rauscher noted that the mayor's tactic of confronting Mr Strache and not yielding to any of his complaints appeared to pay off.

According to surveys cited by ORF, 80 per cent of voters identified refugee issues as their top concern in the election. Most of the hundreds of thousands who have entered Austria since early September have passed through on their way to Germany or other countries to the north and west.

But some 80,000 asylum-seekers are expected to be sheltered in Austria, a country of 8.7 million, by the end of the year.

In Germany, Dr Merkel has come under increasing pressure, particularly from her own conservative camp, for letting so many refugees in, straining Germany's resources.

Bavaria, the southern German state that most of the newcomers reach first, has threatened to take legal action against her in the constitutional court, although it is not clear how that could happen.

Dr Merkel stuck on Sunday to her position that Germany could absorb the new arrivals, and she denied that any special tax would be levied to cope with the extra costs.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2015, with the headline 'Far-right party fails to wrest control of Vienna in city elections'. Print Edition | Subscribe