Page last updated at 09:42 GMT, Friday, 26 September 2008 10:42 UK

Far right seeks boost in Austrian poll

Bethany Bell
BBC News, Vienna

Heinz-Christian Strache
Heinz-Christian Strache ousted Joerg Haider

Austria's far right is hoping an early general election on Sunday will be an opportunity to gain ground.

The elections were called after the fractious coalition between the Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party fell apart after just a year and a half in power.

Disenchantment with the centre left and centre right is likely to give a boost to the two parties of the far right: the Freedom Party led by Heinz-Christian Strache; and the Alliance for the Future of Austria, led by Joerg Haider.

Recent polls suggest that the two parties could capture around a quarter of the vote between them, with 17-19% for the Freedom Party and up to 8% for the Alliance.

That would be the best result for the far right in Austria since 2000, when the Freedom Party, then led by Mr Haider, won 28% and gained a place in the coalition government with the conservatives.

The move sparked outrage across Europe and for several months Austria was placed under EU sanctions.

The Freedom Party remained in coalition with the conservatives for several years. But it was weakened by a power struggle, which led to Joerg Haider breaking away to form the Alliance in 2005.

Populist appeal

The Alliance remained in government while the Freedom Party went into opposition. It began to regain some of its populist appeal under the new leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, with his anti-immigration and anti-EU rhetoric.

Austrian leaders meet for television debate ahead of election
Coalition talks between the parties are likely to take time

However it is not yet clear whether either of the far-right parties will be part of the new government.

The Social Democrats, under their new leader Werner Faymann, have a narrow lead in the polls, with 28-29% - two or three points ahead of the conservative People's Party, led by Wilhelm Molterer.

Together they could form a comfortable majority.

But many Austrians say they are fed up with the idea of another grand coalition, a view perhaps shared by a number of politicians from the Social Democrats and the People's Party.

Mr Faymann has said he is not prepared to do deals with the far right. Mr Molterer has said he does not rule anyone out, but has suggested that a party with anti-EU tendencies - such as the Freedom Party - would not be a suitable partner.

An alternative would be a three-party coalition, unprecedented in post-war Austria, involving one of the two largest parties, the Greens, who stand at about 11% in the polls, and one of the other smaller parties hoping to enter parliament.

However such a coalition would likely have a slim majority as well as suffering from inexperience and instability.

Coalition talks are likely to be long and difficult.

Historic teenage vote

Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that 16 and 17-year-olds will be allowed to vote in a general election for the first time. Austria is the first European Union country to have lowered the voting age from 18 to 16.

Around 200,000 young people will be eligible to vote on Sunday. They are just a small fraction of the voting population of over six million and analysts do not believe their vote will be pivotal.

Supporters of the move argue that 16 year olds are allowed to drink wine and have sex, and so ought to be allowed the vote as well.

Others are less certain, pointing to a recent study which suggests that many young people know little about the political parties in Austria compared to their elders.

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Right-wing popular in Austria
26 Sep 08 |  Europe
Country profile: Austria
03 Jul 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Austria
08 Jul 08 |  Country profiles

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