Austrian 'end of an era' after far-right election triumph

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Vienna (AFP) - Austrian commentators declared the end of an era Monday after the anti-immigration far-right triumphed in presidential elections, ending 70 years of domination by a political elite criticised as out of touch and ineffectual.

According to final results released Monday, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party (FPOe) came a clear first with 35 percent in Sunday's first round of an election for the largely -- but not entirely -- ceremonial post of Austrian head of state.

Hofer, 45, an engineer who walks with a cane since a paraglider accident, will now face Alexander van der Bellen, 72, an economics professor backed by the Greens who was second on 21 percent, in a runoff on May 22.

Candidates from the centrist parties, which have effectively run Austria since the end of World War II, failed to even make it into the runoff on May 22, languishing in fourth and fifth place with just 11 percent each.

The only candidate who fared worse was Richard Lugner, a widely ridiculed 83-year-old construction magnate and socialite married to a former Playboy model 57 years his junior, who won just over two percent.

It means that for the first time since 1945, the Habsburg dynasty's Hofburg palace will not be occupied by a president backed by Chancellor Werner Faymann's Social Democrats (SPOe) or his centre-right coalition partners the People's Party (OeVP).

FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who has railed against the arrival in 2015 of 90,000 asylum seekers in Europe's migrant crisis and who hopes to become chancellor in 2018, heralded "the beginning of a new political age".

The Oesterreich tabloid called it a "tsunami that has turned our political landscape upside down". A map of Austria's voting districts showed a vast sea of blue representing area won by Hofer, with only a few isolated specks of other colours.

"The truth for the SPOe and the OeVP is simply this: your time is over," the Die Presse daily said in an editorial. "In a way this is the end of the Second Republic as we know it," political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP.

Faymann said the result a "clear warning to the government that we have to work together more strongly". Ahead of a meeting of party chiefs on Monday evening, he scotched talk however that he would resign.

Regional heads of his SPOe said in a statement that after the "very disappointing election result, a substantial discussion and the right consequences must take place... What definitely won't help is discussions about personnel."

- Populists -

The result was a further sign that the appeal of mainstream politicians in Europe -- and in the United States with Donald Trump -- is waning as populist figures tap into anger about immigration and growing inequality.

Congratulations poured in from other far-right leaders in Europe. France's Marine Le Pen called Hofer's victory a "magnificent result".

Dutch far-right MP Geert Wilders said it was "fantastic", while Alternative for Germany head Frauke Petry hailed the "terrific outcome".

Faymann's recent tougher line on immigration -- imposing a quota, erecting fences -- has not stopped the FPOe surging. Polls put it in first place with more than 30 percent.

Hofer, the political analyst, said however that immigration is not the only issue, with the weak economy and the government's failure to implement reforms also taking their toll. But most of all, this was "an anti-system election," he told AFP.

Support for the two main parties has been sliding for years and in the last general election in 2013 -- when, unlike now, the far-right vote was split -- they only just garnered enough support to re-form their "grand coalition".

"The FPOe is now clear favourite to emerge as the strongest party in the next general election, and can count on forming a coalition with the SPOe or the OeVP," Anton Pelinka, another analyst, told AFP.

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