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Monday, 26 April 2010

Austrian president re-elected, bitter pill for extreme-right

Austrian President Heinz Fischer won a widely anticipated second term Sunday, in a result that proved a bitter pill for the country's extreme right after it had become accustomed to better results.

Fischer, a former Social Democrat whose position is mostly ceremonial, romped home with 78.94 percent of the vote, final results showed, following a lacklustre campaign marred by a low turnout on election day.

Barbara Rosenkranz, the far-right Freedom Party's candidate and the most controversial player in the campaign, only received 15.62 percent.
"I am not happy (with the result), but I am generally satisfied," Rosenkranz said after the vote, complaining however of an aggressive media campaign against her and blaming her result on the limited turnout.

Rudolf Gehring, an anti-abortionist from the small Christian Party was third with 5.44 percent.

Turnout was particularly low at just 49.17 percent, compared with 71.6 percent in the last presidential elections in 2004.

Rosenkranz, 51, was the most visible figure during this year's campaign, having sparked controversy by questioning Austria's strict law banning Nazi ideology and Holocaust denial.

The stern-looking mother of 10, married to a former member of the now-banned neo-Nazi NDP party, argued the law was "an unnecessary restriction" on freedom of opinion, although she was later forced to make a statement clearly saying she did not deny Nazi crimes.

She also campaigned on an anti-European Union, anti-immigrant platform, while promoting family values and traditional gender roles.

The far-right had been on the upswing in 2008 general elections, with the Freedom Party and its rival Alliance for the Future of Austria winning a combined 27.9 percent of votes.

Even in European Union elections last year, the two parties together took17.74 percent.Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who is running for mayor of Vienna in October and was counting on the presidential vote to kickstart his campaign, also cited the low turnout for the negative result.

In Vienna, Rosenkranz did even worse than the national average with just 14.1 percent.

"This is no occasion for joy," said Strache, who had initially predicted 35 percent for his candidate.

"This was a defeat for Rosenkranz, for the FPOe (Freedom Party), and for Strache," political analyst Peter Hajek said Sunday.

Commentators had warned of the damage to Austria's reputation if Rosenkranz was elected as president and if Horst Jakob Rosenkranz became "first husband".

"I'm happy for him (Fischer) and for Austria. It's a good day," Chancellor Werner Faymann said after the vote.

In Austria, the president has a mostly ceremonial but highly representative role.

Gehring, 61, meanwhile campaigned against abortion and promoted Christian values, presenting himself as "a committed and staunch protector of life" and a "mouthpiece for unborn children."

With such divisive rivals, the soft-spoken Fischer, who took office in 2004 and has hardly caused a stir since, was always favoured to win re-election.

The fact that the conservative People's Party, partner of the Social Democrats in the ruling coalition, decided against fielding a candidate, further secured his position.

In 2004, Fischer defeated the People's Party's Benita Ferrero-Waldner, later an EU Commissioner for external relations, by 52.39 percent to 47.61 percent.

A largely dull campaign and Fischer's near-certain win meant many of the 6.35 million eligible voters stayed at home on Sunday, analysts said.