Austria’s governing coalition slips in elections

VIENNA (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of voters disenchanted with Austria’s cozy ruling coalition voted Sunday for a right-wing opposition party championing anti-immigrant and EU-skeptic views, leaving the government barely holding on to the absolute majority its needs to stay in power for the next five years.

With all votes counted except for ballots cast by mail, the governing Socialist Party had 27.1 percent backing and its centrist People’s Party partner 23.8 percent — a loss of more than 2 percentage points each for both parties and the worst result ever for their coalition, which has governed with few interruptions since the end of World War II.

Although the results gave the two parties nearly 51 percent of all votes cast Sunday, the real winner in terms of gains was the right-wing Freedom Party. With 21.4 percent, its showing was nearly 4 percentage points better than at the last general elections five years ago.

The Greens gained more than 1 percentage point to win 11.5 percent but fell far short of their goal of replacing the Freedom Party as the third strongest political force.

Also clearing the 4-percent hurdle needed to get into parliament were the liberal NEOS at 4.8 percent and the populist Team Stronach of Austro-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach with 5.8 percent. Team Stronach, which was contesting its first federal election, campaigned mostly on criticism of the ruling coalition and likely benefited from disillusionment with the government.

Many Austrians are opposed to their government’s financial and moral backing for the bailouts of Greece and other economically struggling eurozone countries during the protracted crisis that has gripped some of the 17 nations using the European Union’s common currency.

With unemployment at 4.8 percent and an economy that has generally grown over the past five years, Austria has been among the countries least affected by the eurozone’s woes.

But in a country traditionally fearful of outside influences bursting its bubble of prosperity, Freedom Party calls of “Austria first” appeared to have been effective, along with slogans exploiting distrust of Muslim immigrants.

Some 6.4 million people, from the age of 16, were eligible to vote, with about 10 percent choosing to vote by mail. Nearly 66 percent of eligible voters cast ballots on Sunday — well down from five years ago.

Expectations were that the Socialists and People’s Party would renew their coalition. Chancellor Werner Faymann of the Socialist Party had insisted before the elections that he would not seek to govern with the Freedom Party, a promise he repeated Sunday.

Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger, who heads the People’s Party, suggested he was open to negotiations with all parties.

But his dislike of Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache and the Freedom Party’s anti-EU sentiment is common knowledge. His coyness on whether to renew the coalition with the Socialists may be due to a desire to negotiate with them from a position of strength for ministerial posts.

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