Austria far right leads presidential poll

Austria’s far right has won more than a third of the vote in the presidential election and will face an independent in next month’s run-off, dumping out the country’s two main parties from the post for the first time.

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It was the Freedom Party’s best result in a national election after a campaign that focused on the impact of the migrant crisis, which has seen around 100,000 asylum seekers arrive in Austria since last summer.

Norbert Hofer, who ran on an anti-immigrant and anti-Europe platform, on Sunday won 36.4 per cent of the vote to become head of state.

He will face Alexander van der Bellen, a former Green Party figurehead, who won 20.4 per cent, according to official preliminary results.

While the presidency is largely only a ceremonial role, the fact that neither of the main ruling parties will be battling for the post on May 22 marks a major change in Austrian politics – as well as the rising role of the far right in Europe.

Members of the centre-left Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party have filled the job since it was first put to a popular vote in 1951. The two parties have ruled the nation of 8.7 million in tandem for most of the postwar era.

The president is head of state, swears in the chancellor, has the authority to dismiss the cabinet and is commander in chief of the military.

The election outcome was “a resounding slap in the face” for the government coalition, said Wolfgang Bachmayer, who founded the OGM market research institute.

His comments were echoed by political analyst Peter Filzmaier. “Only those who are satisfied vote for a government party or its candidate,” he said. “This time, the annoyed voted for Norbert Hofer.”

Around 70 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots, a big turnout compared with around 50 per cent six years ago when Social Democrat Heinz Fischer, now 77, was elected for his second term.

Peter McDonald, general secretary of co-ruling People’s Party acknowledged the scale of the defeat after coming in fifth in the poll with just 11.2 per cent of the vote.

“We have experienced a landslide that should give the entire political centre food for thought,” he said.

Should Hofer get the top job, he could push to bring forward a parliamentary election due to take place in 2018 as support for his party has been growing.