VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria's ruling Social Democrats lost control of Salzburg to its junior coalition partner on Sunday in the wake of a finance scandal, dealing it a blow in the last provincial poll before national elections.
The center-left Social Democrats' (SPO) share of the vote in Salzburg collapsed to 24 percent from 39 percent in 2009, according to exit polls. The conservative People's Party (OVP) took control with 30 percent, down from 36 percent.
Austria has been ruled by a so-called grand coalition of the SPO and OVP almost continuously since the end of World War Two.
The latest opinion poll last week showed the OVP are also closing in on the SPO on a national level, with 25 percent of support compared with the SPO's 27 percent. The gap between the coalition partners was five points in mid January.
In Salzburg, the SPO was punished for the provincial government's engagement in highly speculative investments, which may have cost the region hundreds of millions of euros.
The case, which triggered early elections, exposed lax supervision of opaque provincial finances and prompted a drive to rein in the regions.
The Greens and the far-right Freedom Party both made gains in the Salzburg poll, and industrialist Frank Stronach's new party also won enough votes to enter the regional assembly.
The Greens, who fought on an anti-corruption platform, saw their share of the vote almost triple to 20 percent from 7 percent.
Wilfried Haslauer, the local OVP chief, said he would talk with the Greens as well as with the SPO about a possible provincial coalition government.
The Freedom Party, which had suffered routs in three other provincial elections this year including in its heartland of Carinthia, raised its share of the vote to 16 percent from 13 percent.
The far-right party has been hurt by the arrival of the eurosceptic, economically liberal Team Stronach, which has attracted many protest votes.
Stronach, after a debacle in Tyrol elections - where his party failed to clear the minimum hurdle - scored 8 percent.
(Reporting by Georgina Prodhan; Editing by Pravin Char)
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