Austria far-right loses power

2013-03-04 10:03
Austrian-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach's campaign poster is pictured during a press conference to unveil his "Team Stronach" party to contest elections due in 2013. (Alexander Klein, AFP)

Austrian-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach's campaign poster is pictured during a press conference to unveil his "Team Stronach" party to contest elections due in 2013. (Alexander Klein, AFP)

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Vienna - Austria's far-right has lost power in its late leader Joerg Haider's stronghold of Carinthia after a drubbing in a state election, five years after the charismatic figure's drink-driving death.

The election in Carinthia and in a second state on Sunday also marked the arrival as a political force of a new euro-sceptic party created in 2012 by 80-year-old Frank Stronach, an Austro-Canadian auto parts and horseracing billionaire.

Following a string of corruption cases, the far-right Freedom Party saw its share of the vote in Carinthia more than halve to around 17.1% from 44.9% at the last election in 2009, final results showed.

And in a boost to federal Chancellor Werner Faymann ahead of national elections later this year, his Social Democrats (SPOe) looked set to regain Austria's southernmost state for the first time since 1999, coming on top with 37.1% of the vote, up 8.4% points.

Faymann's coalition partners, the centre-right People's Party (OeVP), meanwhile scored a good result in Sunday's other election, retaining an absolute majority in the largest state Lower Austria with 51%, projections on national television showed.

‘Personally very disappointing’ results

The Freedom Party also saw its score fall two percentage points in Lower Austria to 8.5%, relegating it to fourth place behind Stronach's new party. The SPOe fell 3.9 percentage points to 21.6% there.

Haider sent shockwaves through Europe in 2000 when his far-right party became part of the Austrian federal government, and even after support fell and his movement split, he remained hugely popular in Carinthia.

After Haider's death in 2008, Carinthia remained his movement's main bastion, but a number of damaging corruption cases, as well as a lacklustre economic performance in the state, have eroded support since 2009.

The scandals have also added to accusations that Haider, along with making light of Nazi concentration camps and praising the Waffen SS, was extremely keen on using his power to line his pockets.

Heinz-Christian Strache, the national leader of the Freedom Party who is hoping for a repeat of Haider's 2000 triumph in upcoming federal polls, on Sunday called the result in Carinthia "personally very disappointing".

"If Carinthia is run by a Social Democrat then he will bring to Carinthia all the asylum cheats," the 43-year-old told a party rally in the state capital Klagenfurt on Saturday, saying the left-wing wanted to "spit into Haider's grave."

Team Stronach

The two state elections were for the first time contested by Stronach's new party, formed only last September. Team Stronach won 11.3% of the vote in Carinthia and around 9.7% in Lower Austria, enough to make it into the state parliaments.

Stronach had left Austria six decades earlier with a few dollars in his pocket, bound for Canada, where he made his fortune from horseracing and auto parts giant Magna.

He says European leaders were "stupid" to have created the euro.

His policies remain vague for now, talking only of slashing bureaucracy, reducing the national debt, imposing a flat income tax rate and a new "Marshall Plan" for the battered economies of southern Europe.

"Team Stronach's focus is on the federal elections. State elections... are pure test runs for us," the octogenarian told the Oesterreich daily on Sunday.

Faymann meanwhile Sunday put a brave face on Stronach's challenge.

"I think that people who vote for Stronach are protest voters," Faymann said. "I have met Frank Stronach and he strikes me as someone who will not stick around if he is not successful. He is not someone who should shape the future of Austria."

"You can buy lots of things with money," agreed Michael Spindelegger, head of Faymann's coalition partners the OeVP. "Yes, it was a successful election result for him (Stronach), but it wasn't that brilliant either."

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