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Austria's far right gives two cheers for German sister party's success

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO), seeking to soften its image before Austrians go to the polls next month, offered only lukewarm praise on Monday for a record election showing by its sister party in neighboring Germany.

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The Alternative for Germany (AfD), which says immigration threatens German culture, shocked the establishment by winning 12.6 percent in Sunday’s national ballot, becoming the first far-right party to enter parliament in more than half a century.

Its close Austrian equivalent, the FPO, has lost its lead in opinion polls to the conservative People’s Party, led by 31-year-old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who has made a hard line on immigration one of his hallmarks.

But tensions between the conservatives and their coalition partners, the Social Democrats, before Austria’s Oct. 15 parliamentary election mean the FPO has arguably its best chance of entering national government since its leader Heinz-Christian Strache took over the reins 12 years ago.

Strache said on Monday the AfD’s showing was “a huge success”, but added a note of caution.

“We agree (with the AfD) when it comes to analyzing the problems but not necessarily regarding the solutions. There are differences indeed,” Strache told broadcaster ORF, without elaborating. “The AfD is a very young party which is, if you like, still in its infancy.”

The Freedom Party was founded in the 1950s by former Nazis, an aspect of its history the party argues is no longer relevant to its policies. It has positioned itself as staunchly anti-Islam but now courts Jewish voters, with apparently limited success.

Strache has called anti-Semitism “a crime against humanity”, but Austria’s main Jewish group says the FPO is xenophobic and divisive.

While the AfD also denies being a Nazi party, one of its leading candidates, Alexander Gauland, said this month that Germans should take pride in what their soldiers achieved during World Wars One and Two.

“They (the FPO) are clearly setting themselves apart from Gauland’s rhetoric,” political analyst Peter Hajek said of Strache’s remarks.

The AfD leadership cracked within hours of its electoral success on Monday when Frauke Petry, the highest-profile figure in its more moderate wing, stormed out of its victory news conference and abandoned its parliamentary group.

Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; editing by Francois Murphy and John Stonestreet