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Austria's far right taken by surprise

There was no disguising the sense of disbelief among supporters of far right populist Jorg Haider as the results of Sunday's election showed that, for the first time since he became leader of the Austrian Freedom Party in 1986, his support had declined, Adrian Bridge writes.

The losses were not very great - its 22 per cent showing was just 0.5 per cent down on October 1994 - but for a man who has sought to surround himself with an air of invincibility, it was a serious setback. "For the first time a man who has defined himself as a perpetual winner has been seen to lose," said Anton Pelinka, a professor of politics at Innsbruck University. "Maybe this is the beginning of the end."

Certainly that was the hope of Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, whose Social Democrats emerged the clear winners of the election after campaigning on an anti-Haider platform.

Mr Haider, 45, has never before lost support in an election, but he has had setbacks - although he bounced back. In 1991 he had to step down as governor of the province of Carinthia after sayingHitler's employment policies were "orderly". In 1994 he unsuccessfully led the "no" campaign in Austria's referendum on European Union membership.

Sunday's election, which was held three years before it was due, was called after the Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party fell out over how to tackle Austria's growing budget deficit. However, both parties are expected to form a new coalition.