Austrian Democrats hold on to power

Election result: Vranitzky jubilant as unofficial results show victory for SPO and drop in support for anti-foreigner party

The Austrian Chancellor, Franz Vranitzky, was last night celebrating victory in a general election which many feared would lead to a breakthrough for the country's far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

Unofficial results gave Mr Vranitzky's Social Democrats (SPO) 38.3 per cent of the vote, comfortably ahead of their nearest rivals, the conservative People's Party (OVP) on 28.3 per cent, and the FPO, led by the populist Jorg Haider, on 22.1 per cent.

A jubilant Mr Vranitzky, now into his 10th year as Chancellor, hailed his victory as "a great result for us and for Austria". He also indicated that he would now begin talks aimed at building a governing coalition with all parties except Mr Haider's FPO.

The SPO triumph marked the reversal of years of decline in its support, which slumped to an all-time low of 34.9 per cent in Austria's last election in October 1994. It also was a vindication of a campaign promising "no experiments" and warning of the danger of allowing Mr Haider into government.

"This shows that the Austrians did not want a government including Mr Haider," said Anneliese Rohrer, political editor of Die Presse newspaper. "The SPO will now be back for years."

The 0.4 per cent drop in support for the FPO marked the first electoral setback for Mr Haider since taking over as party leader in 1986. While accepting that he had hoped to do better, he hailed the result as proof his support had consolidated.

The poll also saw a sharp decline in support for the Greens (which slipped from 7.3 per cent to 4.6 per cent) and the Liberal Forum, which fell back by 0.4 per cent to 5.3 per cent.

The biggest loser of the evening, however, was arguably Wolfgang Schussel, the ambitious leader of the OVP who precipitated the election by pulling out of the old coalition with the SPO in a disagreement over how to reduce Austria's spiralling budget deficit.

Although the OVP made gains of 0.6 per cent, the party failed miserably in its attempt to overtake the Social Democrats as the country's largest party.

In part, Austrians, used to decades of prosperity and stability, were clearly frightened by the sort of budget cutbacks proposed by the OVP, fearing that they could lead to the sort of social unrest currently afflicting France.

In part, however, they were unhappy with Mr Schussel's suggestion that he might form a coalition with Mr Haider, a man who once praised Hitler's employment policies and who campaigned on a crudely anti-immigrant ticket.

Although mathematically a "black-blue" coalition between the OVP and FPO would still be possible, yesterday's results made it extremely unlikely.

According to most observers, the most probable outcome will instead be the resumption of a coalition between the SPO and the OVP, the same team that has been ruling Austria for the past nine years - prompting many to wonder what the election was held for in the first place.

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