Austria's ruling parties set for worst ever result

VIENNA (AFP) - Polls opened on Sunday in Austria's general election, with the country's two-party centrist coalition likely to stay in power but possibly with their worst result ever.

A week after neighbouring Germany handed Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats 41.5 percent of votes, Austria's Social Democrats (SPOe) and conservative People's Party (OeVP) can only wish for such a result - despite both trying to model themselves on the German chancellor.

Indeed, they might need a third party to secure a majority of seats in parliament, as they look set for their poorest election results since 1945.

Opinion polls in the last week had the SPOe at around 27-28 percent of votes and the OeVP at 22-25 percent.

"No clear alternative will emerge," political scientist Anton Pelinka told AFP.

The two parties have dominated Austrian politics since 1945, often in a so-called "grand coalition." But many voters, looking for change, have turned to the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) and the environmental Greens, as well as new, smaller groups like The New Austria (NEOS) and Team Stronach, the party of an 81-year-old Austro-Canadian billionaire.

This is partly due to a string of recent corruption scandals that have plagued many of the main parties.

One of Europe's wealthiest countries with a notoriously high standard of living, Austria has been largely sheltered from the continent's financial woes.

Still, key campaign issues included taxes, pensions and unemployment - even though the small alpine country has the lowest jobless rate in the European Union at 4.8 percent.

Nipping at the OeVP's heels with around 20 percent support, the FPOe is however unlikely to get a place at the coalition table after the outcry that followed its entry into government in 2000 under Joerg Haider, who had made headlines by praising Hitler's employment policies.

Now led by the eurosceptic but telegenic Heinz-Christian Strache, 44, the islamophobic FPOe has campaigned on a platform of "Love thy Neighbour" - if they are Austrian, that is.

The Greens, unsullied by corruption scandals, look like a better choice and could make their first foray into government with an expected 14-15 percent of votes.

"I believe we have the chance to push red-black (the SPOe and the OeVP's colours) under 50 percent and to have a new beginning with the Greens," party leader Eva Glawischnig said on Saturday.

But the person who has most grabbed the headlines during the campaign is a political newcomer: Frank Stronach, an auto parts magnate who made his fortune in Canada and has now vowed to save the country he left as a young man.

He started off strong but became an object of ridicule after a series of gaffes, such as calling for the death penalty for contract killers, and suggesting that China might invade Austria.

From 12 percent support last September, his Team Stronach is now expected to win just six-seven percent, although this will still be enough to enter parliament.

Whether the NEOS and the small far-right Alliance for Austria's Future (BZOe) can secure the necessary four percent is much less clear.

Experts have noted a stronger-than-expected campaign from both sides, but any parliamentary seats for them will further cut into a grand-coalition majority.

Voters began casting their ballots around 7am (1pm Singapore time) on Sunday and polls were to close at 5pm. First results were expected shortly thereafter.

Some 6.4 million people, from the age of 16, are eligible to vote, with about 10 percent choosing to vote by mail.

In the last general election in 2008, the SPOe won 29.3 percent of votes, followed by the OeVP with 26 percent. Turnout, always high in Austria, was 78.8 percent.

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