Austrian far-right candidate well ahead in 1st round of presidential vote

A man casts his vote at a polling station in Vienna, Austria, April 24, 2016. © Leonhard Foeger
The anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) made huge gains in the first round of the Austria’s presidential vote, leaving the traditionally powerful centrist coalition parties in the dust and out of the race.

Norbert Hofer of the far-right FPO won around 36 percent of the vote, followed by the Green Party’s Alexander Van der Bellen with some 20 percent, and independent candidate Irmgard Griss with just over 18 percent, local media reported on Sunday.

Rudolf Hundstorfer from the Social Democrats (SPO) and Andreas Khol from the People’s Party (OVP) came in fourth and fifth, respectively, each garnering around 10 percent of the vote.

Support for the ruling Social Democrats and the People’s Party has been shrinking over the past years. Their drop in popularity has been fueled by strong voter rejection and political uncertainty lying ahead. The Freedom Party, in sharp contrast, has utilized the Austrian public’s fear of mass immigration and the ongoing refugee crisis to gain political clout.

For the first time since 1945, Austria will not have a president backed by either the SPO or OVP, as the two governing parties failed to even make it into next month’s runoff vote, observers say.

READ MORE: Eyes right! Austrian elections follow Europe’s rightist trend

“This is the beginning of a new political era,” FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache said, calling his party’s best-ever showing at the federal level a “historic result.”

“I am convinced that as president, Norbert Hofer will act as protector of the Austrian people,” Strache said, as quoted by AFP.

Chancellor Faymann said that the result was a “clear warning to the government that we have to work together more strongly,” while stressing that his party, the SPO, would not make any personnel changes, including with regard to his own position, according to AP.

Van der Bellen will now face off against Hofer on May 22.

The FPO’s entry into government in 2000 under its late party leader, Jörg Haider, sent shockwaves throughout Europe.

Haider had been accused of harboring Nazi sympathies in the early 1990s, when he praised the Third Reich for having “an orderly employment policy,” while claiming that “the Waffen SS was part of the Wehrmacht [Nazi Germany’s military] and therefore deserved every honor and recognition,” Time magazine reported at the time.

Hofer, who became the third president of Austria’s lower house in 2013, has demanded that the government take a tougher stance on migrants, even threatening to sack it if it failed to do so.

The next general election is due in 2018, and the FPO is currently leading in opinion polls nationwide with more than 30 percent of voter support. The party’s popularity has been boosted by Europe’s severe migrant crisis, in spite of the firmer policies that have been implemented by Faymann’s government in recent months.

The Chancellor announced a plan earlier in January to introduce an upper limit of 37,500 for the number of asylum requests that could be considered in 2016. At present, Austria plans to take in a number of refugees amounting to no more than 1.5 percent of its population over the next four years.