VIENNA (Reuters) - After a campaign dominated by Europe’s migration crisis, the far-right Freedom Party achieved a record result in a local government election in Vienna on Sunday, but failed by a clear margin to beat the incumbent Social Democrats.
The election had increasingly become a personal contest between the mayor of 20 years, Michael Haeupl, who said those seeking refuge should be welcomed in Vienna, and the head of the Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, who has called for Austria to build a border fence to keep migrants out.
Opinion polls before the vote had suggested the Freedom Party was close to a landmark victory for the far right in a European capital, after electoral gains by similar parties in the Netherlands, Sweden, France and Britain.
But while Strache’s party improved on its best previous performance in Vienna in 1996, when it won 28 percent of the vote under his predecessor Joerg Haider, it was beaten far more soundly than those polls had predicted.
The Social Democratic Party (SPO), which has governed “Red Vienna” ever since much of it lay in ruins after World War Two, secured 39.5 percent of Sunday’s vote, ahead of the Freedom Party on 31 percent, a projection by pollster SORA for broadcaster ORF indicated.
Tens of thousands of migrants have passed through Vienna in the past month, almost all continuing to Germany. Their sudden arrival prompted an outpouring of sympathy, with many Viennese donating food and clothes at stations.
But fears about rising immigration have long fueled support for the far right in Austria, which had one of the highest rates of asylum-seekers of any European Union country even before the latest wave of arrivals.
In the past decade, the FPO’s share of the vote has risen significantly both in Vienna and nationally, to more than 20 percent, while the Social Democrats and the center-right People’s Party have lost ground in elections.
The Social Democrats’ performance was one of their worst in Vienna since World War Two, but also a repudiation of their national coalition with the People’s Party, which has been in place under Chancellor Werner Faymann since 2008.
The two parties, which together governed Austria for decades, have largely been seen by voters as ineffective at dealing with problems such as rising unemployment.
“Of course, I am not pleased about a fall in our support, but on the other hand, given the conditions of the duel, I can live with this result,” Haeupl told ORF.
The SORA projection put the Greens on 11.7 percent, suggesting their coalition with the SPO in Vienna was likely to continue.
Faymann, who appeared with Haeupl on the campaign trail, said he was comfortable with the result.
“It was not that close,” he told ORF. “The voters trusted the mayor significantly more (than Strache).”
Editing by Kevin Liffey and Greg Mahlich