Austrian chancellor dismisses critics after far-right election win

Reuters News
Posted: Apr 28, 2016 3:49 PM

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann on Thursday dismissed growing calls from within his party for him to be forced to step down after it suffered a thrashing in last weekend's presidential election and the far right achieved a record result.

Both Austria's traditional parties of government - Faymann's Social Democrats and the conservative People's Party, currently in coalition together - suffered historic losses on Sunday.

For the first time since Austria's head of state became directly elected in 1951, their candidates' combined share of the vote fell below 50 percent, crashing to less than a quarter.

"I am in my eighth year. Keep counting on me being here," Faymann, who has been chancellor and leader of the Social Democrats since 2008, told broadcaster ORF.

"One should never confuse them (critics) with the majority," he said in the joint interview with Vienna mayor and party heavyweight Michael Haeupl, who expressed his support. The next general election in Austria is due to be held in 2018.

The far-right Freedom Party's candidate, Norbert Hofer, unexpectedly scored 35 percent on Sunday, bringing him into a run-off with former Greens leader Alexander van der Bellen, who came second on 21 percent and is running as an independent.

The government's reaction to the election result has been muted. Faymann has called it a "clear warning" but he and the conservative vice chancellor have responded with little more than a pledge to announce new measures at the end of May.

A growing number of Social Democrats have expressed their dismay and called for a party conference expected in November to be brought forward so that senior party figures can be replaced.

"After an electoral loss like Sunday's there must be a leader of this party who takes responsibility," Tanja Wehsely, a member of Vienna's provincial assembly and one of the first Social Democrats to publicly call for Faymann to step down after the election, told Austrian news agency APA.

"A leader is a leader and must also behave as such," she added.

In a series of provincial elections last year in which more than half Austria's population voted, the Social Democrats and People's Party consistently lost ground, while the Freedom Party's share of the vote increased.

Fears linked to rising unemployment and Europe's migration crisis, as well as dissatisfaction with the government, have fueled a rise in support for the Freedom Party, which is now the country's most popular, regularly polling above 30 percent.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)