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Far right surges in Austria vote, instability looms

VIENNA (Reuters) - The far right surged to almost a third of the vote in Austria’s parliamentary election on Sunday, complicating prospects for the biggest mainstream party, the Social Democrats, to forge a stable coalition government.

Austria's Freedom party (FPOe) leader Heinz Christian Strache (L) and leader of Austria's Buendnis Zukunft Oesterreich (BZOe) (Alliance for Austria's future) Joerg Haider gesture after a TV discussion in Vienna September 28, 2008. REUTERS/Miro Kuzmanovic

The right’s record showing heralded political instability in the affluent Alpine republic since the two main centrist parties will be hard put to re-establish a broad coalition even if they resolve the feuds that killed off their last alliance.

“Terrible,” political analyst Anton Pelinka said of prospects for stable government in the near future.

“The strength of the far-right parties will make formation of a coalition incredibly difficult if you don’t bring either into government,” he told Reuters. Social Democrats have ruled out an alliance with the right over its anti-foreigner stances.

Preliminary official results showed the center-left Social Democrats at 30 percent and the conservative Peoples Party at 26 percent, down from 35 and 34 percent respectively in 2006.

It was the worst showing for both since World War Two.

But by retaining their status as the largest single party, the Social Democrats under Werner Faymann are expected to be asked by Austria’s president to form the next government.

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Heinz-Christian Strache’s far right Freedom Party scored 18 percent, compared with 11 percent two years ago, while Joerg Haider’s right-wing populist Alliance for Austria’s Future was on 11 percent, almost tripling its vote haul in 2006.

The two parties were once one, before an acrimonious split in 2005. A major question now is whether the two might cooperate to bolster the right’s case for a share of power.

The ecological Greens slipped to 10 percent from 11 percent.

A throaty roar filled the air in Freedom’s election tent in Vienna when the results flashed on a screen, with the crowd -- mainly young and middle-aged men drinking beer -- punching the air and shouting “bravo.”

“The Social Democrats and Peoples Party have been punished and rejected. And the Social Democrats will have to make clear why they are not at least ready to go into talks about other coalitions,” said Strache, a former dental technician.

Asked by state television how he would proceed, Faymann said: “I stand by our ‘no’ to a coalition with Freedom or the Alliance. We want a stable government with a broad base..., not a squabbling government, which is what voters rejected.”

The results did not include absentee and postal ballots, representing around 10 percent of voters. Final figures are due on October 6 but party rankings are unlikely to change.


Freedom and the Alliance lured away voters from both centrist parties by tapping into anger over government gridlock and proposing anti-inflation measures. The right also benefited from two leaders seen as the most engaging by ordinary people.

The two major parties’ coalition collapsed in July after 18 months of deadlock that stymied promised economic reforms.

“The biggest winner is collectively the radical right ... but that doesn’t mean they can come together in a political partnership,” said Richard Luther, an expert on Austria at Keele University in Britain.

“I think a grand coalition (of the two biggest parties) is still the most likely, (but) it would be relatively weak in terms of its legitimacy,” said Luther.

Pelinka said the conservatives might go tactically into opposition and wait for the Social Democrats to fail in creating another coalition. “But where would they begin?” he said.

Social Democrats feared any wooing of Freedom, best known for its anti-immigrant and anti-Islam campaigns, would shatter the party. A hook-up with the Greens would be more palatable, but not command a majority in parliament.

“This isn’t a national catastrophe, it doesn’t mean that Austria is a right-wing country. We knew this was coming,” said Michel Palliardi, 33, who voted for the Social Democrats.

“A lot of this was in protest at the (outgoing) government. There is a sense of mistrust.”

Freedom’s first junior role in government so repelled the EU in 2000 that it briefly imposed sanctions on Austria. Strache wants to be interior minister and put a stop to immigration.

(additional reporting by Boris Groendahl and Sylvia Westall)

Editing by Giles Elgood