The Social Democratic SPO, headed by Chancellor Franz Vranitzky, saw its support slump from 42 per cent to just over 35 per cent. Its coalition partner, the conservative People's Party (OVP), suffered a similar fate, winning just 28 per cent compared with 32 per cent in 1990. Together, both parties will still be able to govern. But their losses were far heavier than expected.
'This election marks the end of an era in Austrian politics,' said Anneliese Rohrer, political editor of the daily Die Presse. 'Everything has been turned upside down. The ruling parties are going to have to do some serious re- thinking.'
In addition to the FPO, other opposition parties recorded sharp increases. The Greens looked set to capture 7.5 per cent and the Liberal Forum, a breakaway group from the FPO, looked likely to enter parliament at the first attempt with more than 5 per cent.
The success of all three opposition parties underlined a deep dissatisfaction in the country with the SPO and OVP, which between them have ruled Austria unchallenged since the Second World War. The two parties have presided over an extensive system of patronage, carving up the spoils in many areas of national life.
Mr Haider skilfully seized on this discontent, turning it to his advantage. Proclaiming himself the champion of the 'small man', he promised to expose abuses within the system and smash the hitherto cosy, two-party grip on power. Flushed with success, Mr Haider last night claimed he had achieved just that. 'This excellent result is a sign to me that we have finally succeeded in putting post-war Austria behind us,' he told jubilant supporters in Vienna. In the eight years since he became leader of the FPO, support for the party has risen from 5 per cent to 22 per cent, making it the most successful far-right party in Europe.
Joy at the FPO party headquarters was matched by despondency at those of the SPO and OVP. One Social Democrat described the result as a 'catastrophe'.
In recent weeks, the SPO and OVP damaged their cause by publicly bickering over several issues. The OVP Foreign Minister, Alois Mock, caused apoplexy in SPO ranks when he said the Social Democrats, who have been in virtually every government since 1945, would benefit from a spell in opposition. Despite this tension, the two parties will probably maintain their coalition and form the next government - albeit with a reduced majority. Both parties are keen to oversee Austria's smooth entry into the European Union in January.
According to some observers, however, a power struggle within the OVP is not far off. Some of its members have hinted that they would prefer to sever ties with the Social Democrats and throw in their lot with the FPO.
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