“One thing has become clear here - a huge and massive dissatisfaction with the government” Heinz-Christian Strache, Freedom Party leader

Justin Huggler
, berlin 24 APRIL 2016 6:36PM

he far-Right moved a step closer to seizing the Austrian presidency on Sunday night, in an election result that will send shockwaves through Europe.

Norbert Hofer, the gun-toting candidate of the Freedom Party
(FPÖ), won almost twice as many votes as his nearest rival.

Mr Hofer, who ran on an anti-immigrant and anti-Europe platform, won 36.4 per cent of the vote to become head of state

The result could spell the end of the two-party system that has dominated Austria since the Second World War, with their candidates beaten into fourth and fifth place.

Mr Hofer appears to have ridden a wave of public discontent over the refugee crisis.

He will now face his nearest challenger in a run-off vote set for May 22.

“Today political history is being written in Austria,” Heinz-Christian Strache, the Freedom Party leader said in a statement.

“One thing has become clear here - a huge and massive dissatisfaction with the government ... I am convinced that as president, Norbert Hofer, will act as protector of the Austrian people.”

The Austrian presidency is a largely ceremonial role, but Mr Hofer’s dramatic success will be seized on as proof the Freedom Party can win power in 2018 general elections.

That is a prospect that will be viewed with concern across Europe.

Jörg Haider feeds a brown bear back in 1999

The far-Right party first came to prominence under its former leader, Jörg Haider, who notoriously spoke out in praise of the Nazi SS, saying it “deserves every honour and recognition”.

The Austrian establishment will hope they can still deny Mr Hofer the presidency by uniting behind his opponent in the run-off. But on Sunday night it was still not clear who that opponent would be.

With just over half the votes counted, the Green Party’s Alexander van der Bellen and Imgard Griss, a former Supreme Court judge running as an independent, were tied for second place on around 20 per cent each.

They were so close that pollsters predicted it would not be clear which of them had made it through to the run-off until postal votes were counted on Monday.

The result means that for the first time in postwar Austria, the president will not be from one of the two main parties.

The Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the People’s Party (ÖVP), who between them have governed the country since 1945, often in coalition with each other, saw their candidates reduced to also-rans, on around 11 per cent each.

In yet another election, the forecasts were proved wrong. The final opinion polls had Mr Hofer in second place behind Mr van der Bellen, with only 24 per cent of the vote.

The result will embolden his Freedom Party, which has been consistently recording 30 per cent support on an anti-migrant platform.

Mr Hofer carried a Glock pistol on the campaign trail with him, and told reporters a rise in Austrian gun ownership was a natural reaction to the migrant crisis.

“In uncertain times, people try to protect themselves,” he said.

The established parties appear to have paid the price for their muddled response to the crisis.

Werner Faymann, the chancellor, who leads a coalition of the two main parties, initially backed Angela Merkel’s “open-door” refugee policy last year.

But after 90,000 asylum-seekers flooded into the country and public opposition began to harden, he made an extraordinary U-turn.

He closed Austria’s borders,imposed limits on the number of asylum-seekers, and led the international bid to shut off the “Balkan Route” and confine migrants in Greece.

Austrian public opinion remains deeply divided over the issue, as the strong showing by the pro-refugee Mr van der Bellen makes clear.

But, as in regional elections in Germany last month, anti-migrant feeling has propelled a far-Right party to its best ever result.

Unlike in Germany, however, where the established parties held the far-Right at bay, in Austria it could be about to ride that support all the way to the presidency

Far-Right wins first round of Austrian presidential election