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Austria coalition rocked by populist party’s surge

VIENNA — Austria’s governing coalition has been thrown into turmoil after its candidates were humiliated by the nationalist Freedom Party in Sunday’s first-round presidential elections.

The Freedom Party took the most votes after a campaign that stressed discontent with the government’s handling of the migrant crisis and the economy.

The party’s candidate, Norbert Hofer, who placed first with 35 percent of the first-round ballots, said he may fire the current government or veto some of its decisions if elected, raising the stakes for the May 22 runoff.

Hofer, 45, will run against Alexander van der Bellen, 72, a candidate backed by the opposition Green party, who took 21 percent, according to official results.


“This government won’t have an easier time with me, but Austria will have it better,” Hofer said in an interview with Austrian public broadcaster ORF. “There’s always the option to dismiss the government if, after talks and efforts, it’s not getting better.”

While Austrian presidents have a largely ceremonial role, they can dismiss the government and call fresh elections. Hofer has said he would also refuse to sign off on selected laws, such as a planned free-trade agreement between the European Union and the United States, and that he may accompany Chancellor Werner Faymann to EU summits if elected.

“This result could be the start of a dynamic in which the coalition breaks down by itself or gives the president a reason to act,” said Anton Pelinka, a professor of political science at Central European University in Budapest.

The outcome underscores the antiestablishment mood among voters in a region still grappling with the worst migrant crisis since World War II. In neighboring Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approval rating has plunged to the lowest level of her third term after admitting about 1 million asylum seekers last year.


In Sweden, Social Democratic Prime Minister Stefan Loefven’s government is suffering record-low poll numbers amid the biggest inflow of migrants in the country’s history.

Austria’s two main parties, which clung to a majority in the last national elections in 2013 after having run the country for most of the past 70 years, have seen approval ratings slump as they flip-flop on the migration issue. The government’s inconsistency added to domestic discontent about rising unemployment and economic stagnation.