Voters give far right a drubbing in Austria presidential election

The Austria presidential election was a landslide victory for incumbent Heinz Fischer and saw the far right poll worse than expected, sending a message that its appeal is dimming, analysts say.

By , Correspondent

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    Austria presidential election: President Heinz Fischer and his wife Margit react after seeing the first exit polls on television in the presidential office in Vienna Sunday.
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Austrian voters sent a clear message Sunday to the far right when they shunned Freedom Party candidate Barbara Rosenkranz and voted overwhelmingly for independent Heinz Fischer to serve a second term as president.

Mr. Fischer, formerly with the Social Democrats, garnered nearly 78 percent of the vote. Rosenkranz came in a distant second with 15.5 percent. Rudolf Gehring, leader of the newly formed Christian Party, received nearly 6 percent of the vote.

Rosenkranz is a member of the lower house of parliament. She became known on the campaign trail as "Reich Mother" for her strong anti-foreigner stance, while critics cast her as a Nazi sympathizer.

The question was not whether Fischer would win big, but how big. The goal of the Freedom Party was to capture 25 percent of the vote, which would have been consistent with national elections two years ago. But Rosenkranz was met with significant and vocal opposition by voters.

"The Freedom Party is coming out of this election with hefty minus points," said political analyst Ferdinand Karlhofer.

This presidential election was a litmus test for the far right. If they had gotten a quarter of the electorate to swing their way, they could have conceivably created momentum for regional elections in the fall.

What about Vienna?

The leader of the Freedom Party, Hans Christian Strache, has his eye on the mayor's seat in Vienna, a city which is traditionally a liberal stronghold. A relatively healthy turnout for Rosenkranz would have boosted Mr. Strache's position. But even Strache stepped away from Rosenkranz in the end, when her alleged Nazi sympathies became a thorny problem for the Freedom Party.

"Grandma Rosenkranz would have presented a horror show as president of Austria,” said Wolfgang Fellner, editor of Oesterreich, the Austrian daily which dropped its support for her candidacy.

A nearly 100,000-strong online anti-Rosenkranz movement, coupled with throngs of hecklers on the trail, appeared to unnerve the far-right candidate, weakening her rhetoric against immigration, Islam, women's rights, and the European Union.

Rosenkranz is a mother of 10 children. She is married to Horst Rosenkranz, a former member of a neo-Nazi organization that was forced to disband under Austrian law. He is now a fund-raiser for jailed neo-Nazis and a publisher of a far-right magazine.

She has lobbied to change the country's anti-Nazi law, claiming the law punishes young people too harshly for what she calls "teenage folly."

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Holocaust denial?

The candidate never seemed to recover from saying she "doubted the existence of gas chambers at Nazi concentration camps." After much public outcry, she answered her critics with a non-answer. "My knowledge and view of history is the one of a person who visited Austrian schools between 1964 and 1976." Political analysts viewed her vague response as a coded message to the far right. Vienna attorney Georg Stanger has filed suit against Rosenkranz, alleging her position on the law was "a preparing act for spreading a Nazi mind-set."

Fringe candidate Rudolf Gehring, a member of the newly formed fundamentalist Christian Party, ran on anti-gay and anti-feminist platforms and encouraged a salary for housewives, so children could avoid kindergarten, which Gehring claims causes "brain damage." He also warned supporters that government forces will soon be implanting chips into the brains of Austrians.

Aside from the Freedom Party, major Austrian parties avoided running a candidate against Fischer, the incumbent president. A former member of parliament, he is the most popular Austrian politician in recent memory. The People's Party, the Social Democrats and the Green Party all endorsed Fischer. The lack of a significant challenge to Fischer was unsettling to a core contingent of voters, who cast blank ballots, or otherwise voted against Rosenrkanz or Gehring.

"When you don't have two powerful candidates, it's very hard to to emotionalize the voters for the different campaigns," says Gunther Sidl, a political scientist and a member of Fischer's campaign team. "But to a large degree, young people voted for Fischer to keep Rosenkranz or Gehring from becoming the next president. These two candidates where very unattractive to young people.

"The Austrian President has to be a politician for nearly all Austrians," says Mr. Sidl. "Radical players that don't have the majority appeal are not really welcome."

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