Populist far-right parties made sweeping gains in Austria's closely fought general election yesterday, making their strongest showing since 2000 when the country suffered European Union sanctions after a far-right party entered government.
The Freedom Party, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, gained more than 18 per cent of the vote – nearly doubling its share of support – after running a vitriolic campaign against "foreign criminals" and "asylum cheats" and pledging to take Austria out of the EU.
A second right-wing party, the Alliance for the Future of Austria, headed by the veteran far-right populist Jörg Haider upped its support from 4 to 11.5 per cent. A spokesman for Mr Haider's party described the result as a " historic success" yesterday. "It will completely change the political landscape in Austria," he said.
A triumphant Mr Haider went on Austrian television last night and insisted that both right-wing parties should now work together. "Voters now expect us to do something for Austria. They do not want us steeped in animosity and fighting each other," he said. Mr Haider broke with the Freedom Party in 2005 after a row and subsequently formed his breakaway Alliance.
The combined vote of both rightist parties equalled that obtained by Austria's Social Democrats, who picked up just over 29 per cent of the vote. The conservatives won some 26 per cent. However, final results are not expected to be known until the beginning of October, after postal ballots have all been counted.
The election was held a year earlier than planned after infighting caused the collapse of the country's 18-month grand coalition of Social Democrats and conservatives in July. Austria lowered the voting age from 18 to 16 for the poll – enabling an extra 200,000 young people to take part. However, many complained that they were too ill-informed to do so.
The result appeared to leave Austria with an uncertain political future as both main parties said prior to the election that they were reluctant to form another grand coalition or join forces with the far right. The Social Democrats categorically ruled out an alliance with the far right.
Commentators suggested last night that the sudden leap in support for the far right would leave the main parties with little option but to try for another grand coalition. Werner Faymann, the Social Democrat leader, repeated his opposition to co-operating with the far right.
Mr Faymann's party, which lost some 5.5 percentage points of support in the poll, claimed that it had won the election and would lay claim to the post of Chancellor. Austria's conservatives lost over 8 percentage points of support. Ursula Plassnik, the conservative Foreign Minister, described the outcome as "the worst ever result for our party".
Weeks of political horse-trading between the parties are now expected. The prospect of the far right eventually entering national government for a second time was not being totally excluded, should the grand coalition option fail. After Austria's last elections in 2006, it took six months to form a governing coalition.
During campaigning, both the Freedom Party and the Alliance campaigned against an influx of "criminal immigrants" they claimed had resulted from the changes to the Schengen area borders in 2007. The Freedom Party also campaigned to take Austria out of the EU.
The EU imposed sanctions on Austria in 2000 after the Freedom Party won 28 per cent of the vote. Mr Haider, who was then party leader, became the butt of international criticism after he praised Hitler's employment policies and described members of the Nazi SS as " men of honour". In an interview with The Independent last week, Mr Haider insisted that his praise for the Nazis was a thing of the past.
Michael Häupl, Vienna's mayor, was one of many Austrian observers who complained bitterly about the resurgence of the far right less than a decade after they were voted out of office. "If this trend continues, then the next Chancellor of Austria will be Strache," he said.