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Sunday, 24 November, 2002, 22:12 GMT
Austria conservatives storm to victory
Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel after voting
All eyes are now on Chancellor Schuessel
Austria's centre-right People's Party has scored a sweeping victory in elections which saw a dramatic slump in the fortunes of its former coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party.

Two-thirds of the Freedom Party's former supporters deserted what was once Europe's most successful far-right movement, led by Joerg Haider.

Results (1999 results in brackets)
People's Party: 42.3% (26%)
Social Democrats: 36.9% (33%)
Freedom Party: 10.2% (26.9%)
Greens: 9.0% (7.4)

Preliminary official results showed the Freedom Party taking only 10.2% of the vote - a massive 17% below its 1999 result.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's conservative People's Party scored its best result in two decades, garnering 42.3%.

Mr Schuessel has not ruled out renewing the pact with Mr Haider's party despite bitterness over the coalition's collapse.

"We want to hold frank talks with all three parties. Nothing has been prearranged," he told Austrian television.

"We want to see how we can implement as much as possible of our reform course."

The opposition Social Democrats - who led in coalitions with the conservatives for 30 years - took 36.9%.

Coalition talks

Mr Schuessel said his party would offer "really trusting co-operation with all three parties".

Joerg Haider
Haider's Freedom Party may get a second chance

His last coalition with the Freedom Party caused an outcry in Europe when it first took office nearly three years ago, because of Mr Haider's extreme right, anti-EU views.

The Social Democrats say that they expect a new centre-right coalition and that they would rather be in opposition than form a coalition with the conservatives.

Negotiations on the new government begin on Monday and are expected to take weeks.

Sunday's election was held a year early, following the collapse of the coalition between the Freedom Party and the People's Party.

During their three years in government, the People's Party shifted sharply to the right, while the Social Democrats moved to the left.

Surprise result

Opinion polls suggested the vote would be neck-and-neck between the People's Party and the Social Democrats.

Alexander van der Bellen, leader of the Greens
The Greens made small gains

Before polling began, a significant number of Austrian voters said they were still undecided about who to vote for - and some said they would stay away from the polls altogether.

"It's not very interesting because most of the parties don't have many differing points of view. I really don't pay any attention to it," was one view.

The 1999 elections shook Europe when the Freedom Party came in second with 25%, scoring its best ever result and winning a place in government.

The party's entry into government brought an end to years of cosy "Grand Coalition" rule between the Social Democrats and the People's Party.

The BBC's Tristana Moore
"A result few had expected"
See also:

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