• Austrian ruling parties set for bloody nose

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    VIENNA: Austrians voted Sunday in the first round of a presidential election expected to mark a historic break with the cozy post-war political establishment at the hands of the anti-immigration far-right and the Greens.

    The Social Democrats (SPOe) and the center-right People’s Party (OeVP) have dominated Austrian politics since 1945 and form the unloved current government of Chancellor Werner Faymann.

    The president, who ensconced in the Habsburg dynasty’s former palace in central Viennahas a largely but not entirely ceremonial role, has usually come from these two parties or had their backing as independents.

    But on Sunday surveys suggest that neither the SPOe’s Rudolf Hundstorfer, 64, nor the OeVP’s Andreas Khol, 74, will even make it into a run-off on May 22.

    Instead, leading the polls are Norbert Hofer, 45, of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe); Alexander van der Bellen, 72, backed by the Greens; and the independent Irmgard Griss, 69.

    In a tight race, van der Bellen is projected to get around 26 percent, Hofer 24 percent and Griss 21 percent, well ahead of Hundstorfer and Khol on 15 and 11 percent respectively.

    The only candidate expected to fare worse is Richard Lugner, an 83-year-old construction magnate and socialite married to a former Playboy model 57 years his junior.

    Migrant crisis

    Support for the two main parties has been sliding for years and in the last general election in 2013 they only just garnered enough support to re-form their “grand coalition.”

    “Like elsewhere in Europe, we are witnessing the downfall of the traditional parties,” political analyst Peter Hajek told Agence France-Presse.

    Leading opinion polls ahead of 2018 general elections with more than 30 percent is the far-right FPOe, boosted by Europe’s migrant crisis despite a firmer line in recent months from Faymann’s government.

    Austria also no longer has the lowest unemployment rate in the European Union and Faymann’s coalition, in power since 2008, has bickered over structural reforms.

    The FPOe — which under the late, SS-admiring Joerg Haider sent shockwaves around Europe after entering government in 2000 — came second in state elections in Vienna and in Upper Austria last year.

    “In the past, the presidential election focused on personalities but this year political issues have also come into play. Hundstorfer and Khol will have to pay for their parties’ failings,” said Karin Cvrtila of pollster OGM.

    Heads could roll in the current government if neither candidate makes it into the run-off, she added.

    Sleeping giant

    Having a president not from either of the two main parties could shake up the traditionally staid and consensus-driven world of Austrian politics.

    Hofer — the “friendly face of the FPOe” who likes to carry his Glock gun in public — has threatened to fire the government if it fails to get tougher on migrants.

    Van der Bellen has said he would refuse to swear in FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache as chancellor in 2018.

    “The role is like that of a sleeping giant who has a lot more authority than people are aware of,” legal expert Manfried Welan told AFP.

    “I can only say that I have a good feeling that things are looking good,” Hofer said as he cast his vote on Sunday morning.

    Voting ends at 1500 GMT, with exit polls expected soon afterwards. AFP

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