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FPÖ's Hofer wins 36.7% of vote, runoff likely

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FPÖ's Hofer wins 36.7% of vote, runoff likely
Right-wing Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) presidential candidate Norbert Hofer answers media question at his party headquarters. Photo: EPA/FILIP SINGER
16:29 CEST+02:00
Austria's anti-immigration far-right triumphed on Sunday in the first round of a presidential election, with candidates from the two governing parties failing to even make it into a May 22 runoff.

Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) won 36.7 of the vote, followed by Alexander van der Bellen backed by the Greens on 19.7 percent and independent candidate Irmgard Griss on 18.8 percent, projections showed.

From the governing coalition, Rudolf Hundstorfer from the Social Democrats (SPÖ) came joint fourth with just 11.2 percent, level with Andreas Khol from the People's Party (ÖVP).

The only candidate who fared worse than the main parties' candidates was Richard Lugner, an 83-year-old construction magnate and socialite married to a former Playboy model 57 years his junior, who won 2.3 percent.

The result, if confirmed, means that for the first time since 1945, Austria will not have a president backed by either the SPÖ or ÖVP.

Support for the two parties has been sliding for years and in the last general election in 2013 they only just garnered enough support to re-form Chancellor Werner Faymann's "grand coalition".

Austria also no longer has the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union and Faymann's coalition, in power since 2008, has bickered over structural reforms.

The next general election is due in 2018. The FPÖ is currently leading national opinion polls with more than 30 percent of voter intentions, boosted by Europe's migrant crisis.

"This is the beginning of a new political era," FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache said after what constitutes the best-ever result at federal level for the former party of the late, SS-admiring Joerg Haider.

"One thing has become clear here -- a huge and massive dissatisfaction with the government... I am convinced that as president, Norbert Hofer, will act as protector of the Austrian people," he said.

The Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the centre-right People's Party (ÖVP) have dominated Austrian politics since 1945 and form the unloved current government of Chancellor Werner Faymann.

The president, who is ensconced in the Habsburg dynasty's former palace in central Vienna, has a largely but not entirely ceremonial role, and usually comes from one of these two parties or had their backing as an independent.

Migrant crisis

Support for the two main parties has been sliding for years and in the last general election in 2013 they only just garnered enough support to re-form their "grand coalition".

"Like elsewhere in Europe, we are witnessing the downfall of the traditional parties," political analyst Peter Hajek told AFP.

Leading opinion polls ahead of 2018 general elections with more than 30 percent is the far-right FPÖ, boosted by Europe's migrant crisis despite a firmer line in recent months from Faymann's government.

Austria also no longer has the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union and Faymann's coalition, in power since 2008, has bickered over structural reforms.

The FPÖ -- which under the late, SS-admiring Joerg Haider sent shockwaves around Europe after entering government in 2000 -- came second in state elections in Vienna and in Upper Austria last year.

"In the past, the presidential election focused on personalities but this year political issues have also come into play. Hundstorfer and Khol will have to pay for their parties' failings," said Karin Cvrtila of pollster OGM.

Heads could roll in the current government if neither candidate makes it into the run-off, she added.

Sleeping giant

Having a president not from either of the two main parties could shake up the traditionally staid and consensus-driven world of Austrian politics.

Hofer -- the "friendly face of the FPÖ" who likes to carry his Glock gun in public -- has threatened to fire the government if it fails to get tougher on migrants.

Van der Bellen has said he would refuse to swear in FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache as chancellor in 2018.

"The role is like that of a sleeping giant who has a lot more authority than people are aware of," legal expert Manfried Welan told AFP.

"I can only say that I have a good feeling that things are looking good," Hofer said as he cast his vote on Sunday morning.

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