Far-right make gains in Austria election


Support for Austria's far-right Freedom Party nearly doubled in a provincial election today while the centre-left suffered its worst result since World War Two.

The conservative People's Party made gains and held on to power in Austria's third most populous province, a traditional centre-right stronghold.

But the hard right Freedom Party scooped up votes from the centre left, whose popularity slumped 14 percentage points and continued a nationwide losing streak which may raise pressure on chancellor Werner Faymann.

His Social Democrat Party has lost every regional and labour council vote since scraping to power in a national election a year ago.

"This is a very, very bad election defeat," Social Democrat candidate Erich Haider told broadcaster ORF. "Obviously in times of (economic) crisis people are turning to more conservative recipes."

The conservatives made slight gains in Upper Austria, home to the prosperous steel-making city of Linz and a sixth of the national electorate, with 46 per cent of the vote.

The Social Democrats came second with 25 per cent, down from 38 per cent in 2003. Freedom surged to 16 per cent, according to initial projected results. The Greens held steady on 9 per cent.

Alliance for Austria's Future, the party of late far-right leader Joerg Haider, won only 3 per cent, and is unlikely to make it into the provincial parliament. He was no relation to Erich Haider.

The conservatives may choose to renew their coalition with the Social Democrats and Greens. They have ruled out a coalition with Freedom, which wants to halt immigration and to create a ministry for repatriating foreigners.

Last Sunday, Freedom doubled its share of the vote to 25 per cent in Vorarlberg, a province of 300,000 people where the ruling conservatives held on to power but the Social Democrats again suffered their worst result since 1945.

Since it was formed last November, the awkward national coalition government of the Social Democrats and conservatives has focused on the economy, implementing tax cuts and stimulus measures worth more than €5 billion and a rescue package for Austrian banks.

But support has continued to grow for Freedom, which has capitalised on anti-immigrant sentiment amid rising unemployment and broader economic concerns in the electorate.