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Austria’s far-right bleeds at hustings

Vienna, Nov. 24 (Reuters): Austrian populist Joerg Haider’s far-right party plunged in today’s elections, but a landslide victory by his conservative partners could save their centre-right ruling coalition, projections showed.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel of the conservative People’s Party has signalled he is open to renewing the coalition whose collapse in September triggered snap elections, but talks could take weeks and no outcome is certain. “Before the final results one shouldn’t say anything. We will have talks with everybody,” People’s Party general-secretary Maria Rauch-Kallat said on Austrian state television ORF when asked about possible coalition choices.

But the Social Democrats, who came in second behind the conservatives, said they believed Schuessel was more prone to reviving his coalition with the far-right than to forming a “grand coalition” of the two biggest parties.

“It does seem that there will be a black (People’s Party)-blue (Freedom Party) coalition again,” said Social Democratic party manager Doris Bures.

According to the latest projections by state television ORF, Haider’s anti-immigration, eurosceptical Freedom Party only garnered 10.4 per cent of votes, an almost 17 percentage point drop in results from Freedom’s record results in 1999.

The projections, based on almost half the votes counted, lent credibility to the claim that voters were tired of Freedom’s in-fighting and the policy swings that led to the break-up of the centre-right coalition.

Schuessel’s conservatives surged to 42.9 per cent, their best result in two decades, after the chancellor successfully co-opted Haider’s tough anti-immigration stance and wooed away Freedom’s most popular figure, finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser.

The result meant Haider’s party was down but not out, with a chance of returning to government despite falling below their modest target of 15 per cent. The Social Democrats, traditionally Austria’s biggest party, took second place with 36.6 per cent. Their potential coalition partners, the Greens, posted 8.2 per cent.

The Social Democrats had hoped to return from nearly three years in opposition, either in a German-style “red-green” coalition with the Greens or a return to the “grand coalition” with the conservatives that ruled Austria for 13 years until 2000.

The snap election was called after Haider triggered a coalition crisis by trying to retake control of the party he led for 15 years until 2000, forcing the resignation of moderate Freedom ministers. Schuessel then called off the coalition.

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