Record-low participation tarnishes Fischer victory

Incumbent president Heinz Fischer’s clear victory in yesterday’s (Sun) presidential elections was overshadowed by a record-low turn out.Around 50 per cent of Austrians stayed away from the polling booths as almost 79 per cent of the 6.3 million Austrians entitled to vote supported the former Social Democratic (SPÖ) science minister.The Freedom Party’s (FPÖ) Barbara Rosenkranz garnered around 16 per cent of the overall vote, while Rudolf Gehring of the non-parliament Austrian Christians Party (CPÖ) came third with around five per cent.The final result and precise participation figures will be announced on Friday after all voting cards are counted. It was the first time 16-year-olds have been allowed to take part in a presidential election.Preliminary figures revealed that, with around 50 per cent, more people than ever did not take part in a presidential election.Statistics also reveal that more than seven per cent of votes cast were invalid. Analysts and some SPÖ officials accused the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) for this.Leading officials at the SP֒s coalition partner including whip Karlheinz Kopf, environment minister Nikolaus Berlakovich and Ernst Strasser, head of its delegation in the European Parliament (EP), had revealed ahead of the election that they would vote invalid or “white” since they did not agree with the policies of either of the three candidates.Former ÖVP boss Erhard Busek and former conservative European Commissioner Franz Fischler meanwhile backed Fischer’s bid.ÖVP boss Josef Pröll refused to reveal who he would vote for, but was criticised for neither nominating an own party candidate nor supporting Fischer. The party’s Salzburg and Lower Austrian departments had spoken out in favour of an ÖVP candidate, but the majority of its federal board decided not to nominate anyone.Some claimed Pröll hoped for better chances of becoming Austria’s next chancellor since if a former SPÖ official was in office as president many Austrians would be in favour of a certain “balance of power” between the two political powerhouses.Research revealed 55 per cent of those who voted “white” usually support the ÖVP.The Greens, who did not nominate an own candidate either, officially backed Fischer.Political experts said the SPÖ hoped Fischer’s triumph would give their campaigns in the upcoming provincial elections in Burgenland, Styria and Vienna a boost. But SPÖ Chancellor Werner Faymann stressed yesterday: “I congratulate Heinz Fischer. But a personality was elected in this vote, not a party.”Political scientists have said they were surprised about the little involvement in the presidential election campaign of the SPÖ since party suffered losses in all of the past 11 federal and provincial elections.Researchers SORA said the majority of people deciding not to vote did so over a “lack of options”, while many others decided to stay away since the outcome – a clear victory of the incumbent president – had been predicted.Stefan Bachleitner, head organiser of Fischer’s campaign, said yesterday after preliminary results were announced: “This is a day of joy and a good day for Austria.”Asked whether the low participation tarnished his mood, he stressed that Fischer managed to win the support of many more people this time around than in the 2004 election.Fischer beat the ÖVP’s Benita Ferrero-Waldner six years ago for his first term in office in a campaign that could not be more different from the one ahead of yesterday’s election.Ferrero-Waldner, who was foreign minister, was seen neck-and-neck with Fischer. The two heavyweights challenged each other in an intense political battle focusing on facts and topical arguments. Around 72 per cent of Austrians headed to the voting booths in 2004.The 2010 presidential election campaign drew a completely different picture. Fischer was seen between 70 and 80 per cent at every stage after announcing his decision to run for a second term last November.The FPÖ decided to nominate Barbara Rosenkranz – who represents its nationalist wing – while the ÖVP, the Greens and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) failed to send own candidates into the race.Rosenkranz came under fire after failing to disassociate herself from Nazi mindset in several interviews, and subsequently accused several newspapers and Austrian broadcaster ORF of “riding an aggressive campaign against myself”.The mother-of-ten, whose husband publishes a right-extremist political magazine, announced she would regard 18 per cent and more as a success. FPÖ boss Heinz-Christian Strache meanwhile claimed he saw the potential of 35 per cent.”If Fischer is seen around 70 per cent in polls, I wonder why Barbara Rosenkranz should not be able to garner the rest,” he explained.Strache praised the election’s outcome as a “very good result for the FPÖ considering the circumstances”. Both Strache and Rosenkranz branded coverage of the campaign a “witch hunt” against Rosenkranz.”I’m very pleased to see how many people did not let the media beguile them about what I think and what I’ve said,” Rosenkranz said.The Salzburg-born MP received outspoken support by market-leading Kronen Zeitung newspaper after not signing the European Union’s (EU) Lisbon Treaty as the only Austrian MP in 2005.Fischer was subsequently attacked after signing the treaty the same year, while both Rosenkranz and Gehring said they would have called for a referendum about the treaty had they been in charge.Rosenkranz accused Fischer of being a “core Socialist” who was unaware of people’s worries. She also criticised him for “lacking courage”, while Kronen Zeitung publisher Hans Dichand praised Rosenkranz as a “brave mother”.Gehring meanwhile took the role of a rather obscure candidate. His party failed to enter the parliament in 2008 as it won less than one per cent in the general election.Asked what he would have done differently over the past six years had he been in charge instead of Fischer, he said: “I would have ensured Josef Pröll does not become finance minister. He might be a nice and sociable person but has no idea about financial issues.”And I would have never sworn in Norbert Darabos as defence minister. He is not a person of authority and has no idea about defence issues,” Gehring – who opposes abortion and calls homosexuality a “wrong track attitude” – said.Gehring caused outcry when he said children may face brain damage at state kindergartens and day-care centres.He also claimed Austrians were in danger of having chips implanted under their skin in undercover operations.Gehring said ministers would be asked to hold a prayer ahead of every summit if he becomes president. And despite polls giving him not more then six per cent, Gehring was confident of coming second to force Fischer in a run-off vote.He said yesterday: “I’m happy about every vote I received. I would like to thank everyone who voted for me and can assure them I will not disappear from the political landscape of this country.”Both Gehring and Rosenkranz said they would increase the Austrian army’s budget if they won the election, while the FPÖ MP called for shut borders over soaring crime figures.While Fischer’s main campaign slogan was “Unser Handeln braucht Werte” (Our actions need values), Rosenkranz reacted by making “Ohne Mut keine Werte” (No values without Courage) her key statement. Many of her posters were vandalised across the country, while activists added a comma or the word “und” (and) to change her slogan to “Ohne Mut, keine Werte” or “Ohne Mut und keine Werte” (No courage, no values).Speaking about the low participation, Fischer said: “There has been a special situation this time since one of the two big parties did not nominate an own candidate. This might lead to discussions, but I’m happy about this fantastic result and the strong trust many Austrians apparently put in me.”The almost 79 per cent for Fischer, Austria’s eighth post-war president, are the second-best result in history after Rudolf Kirchschläger’s nearly 80 per cent in the 1980 election.It will be the 71-year-old’s final term in office since law rules out a third term. Fischer – who was the SP֒s whip, science minister and a president of the federal parliament – is regarded as a comparably “calm” politician who considers every word very carefully. His critics have accused him for failing to make clear statements about various issues. Referring to the ongoing conflict about bilingual place-name signs in the province, Fischer said: “I wonder whether those who criticise my approach want me to invade Carinthia with tanks.”Fischer was however criticised by those who generally support his policies recently. Fischer claimed he was unable to attend the funeral of late Polish president Lech Kaczynski in Krakow due to the lockdown of European air traffic sparked by an ash cloud spreading across most of the continent for days.Asked whether he could not go by car, he argued such a trip was unable to arrange due to his chauffeur’s roster. Some claimed he should have taken the train, while the press pointed out the chancellor or foreign minister did not represent Austria at the ceremony either. Columnists launched a stinging attack at the government since Austria was eventually not represented at the funeral.Fischer, who has been married to Margit for 41 years, tried in many ways to introduce a new style of politics during his first term. He was the first president who did not reside in the presidential villa in posh Vienna-Döbling in favour of keeping his Vienna-Josefstadt flat.He could make sure of the support of a prominent committee of Austrian personalities ahead of Sunday’s election featuring veteran journalist Hugo Portisch, extreme mountaineer Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner and former Bank Austria (BA) boss Erich Hampel.The team backing Barbara Rosenkranz in contrast mostly featured former FPÖ politicians, all aged older than 50. Former FPÖ Vice Chancellor Herbert Haupt acted as head of the group. He claimed his mobile phone was tapped because of his activity, adding that he would not care about that.The presidential election was only the first in a series of crucial votes this year.The SPÖ is under threat of losing its absolute majority in the 30 May Burgenland elections, while people in Styria and Vienna will elect new provincial parliaments in autumn.A close race between SPÖ and ÖVP for number one is forecast for Styria where the SPÖ Governor Franz Voves announced he would resign if the ÖVP comes first.Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl’s SPÖ could meanwhile lose some percentage points to the FPÖ. Analysts expect the Vienna city election campaign to mainly focus on topics which play a key role in the FP֒s portfolio such as immigration and soaring crime figures.