The far-right resurged in local elections Sunday in Vienna, the Austrian capital, securing the biggest gains in votes and mandates following a campaign laced with anti-Islamic rhetoric.
With only absentee ballots left to be counted, the anti-immigration Freedom Party won 27 percent and 28 seats in the regional parliament _ up from 13. That's a significant boost from the 14.8 percent they garnered during 2005 elections, and near their record high of 27.9 percent, achieved in 1996, when the late Joerg Haider was at the party's helm.
"With a hand on my heart, I am deeply grateful for the confidence the Viennese have given me and I know what that responsibility means," Freedom Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache said.
The Social Democrats took the lead with 44.2 percent of the vote _ down from 49.1 percent in 2005. But with just 49 seats to call their own, down from 55, they lost their absolute majority and will now have to look for a coalition partner.
That comes as a significant blow to longtime mayor Michael Haeupl, who had hoped his party would not have to share power.
"The voter is always right in a democracy and as a democrat I accept this result and now we have to keep working," said a clearly crushed Haeupl, who has given no indication he would resign over the outcome. He said the Freedom Party had done a better job mobilizing its supporters.
The center-right People's Party, meanwhile, also suffered big losses, dropping from 18.8 percent in 2005 to 13.2 percent or 13 seats. It had previously held 18. The Greens placed fourth with 12.2 percent, or 10 seats, down from 14.6 five years ago. It lost four mandates.
Over the past few months, the Freedom Party tried to shore up support with campaign posters that mentioned "Vienna blood" _ originally a waltz by Johann Strauss _ which critics claimed had clear racist undertones in this political context.
The party also circulated a controversial comic strip that features a character resembling Strache who urges a young boy to use his sling shot to hit Mustafa, who led the historic Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683.
In the end, the Freedom Party connected best with predominantly male and less educated voters aged 20 to 29 or above 60, according to the Vienna-based Institute for Social Research and Analysis.
The Social Democrats, for their part, tried to position 61-year-old Haeupl, who has been mayor since 1994, as a strong captain who had proven capable of steering the city through difficult times. In a last-minute attempt to change the focus of debate leading up to the election, Haeupl voiced support for an end to conscription and called for a referendum on the matter.
In response to the Freedom Party, the young Social Democrats handed out a comic that portrayed Strache as brain-dead and remote-controlled and in which a hero named "Mr. X" beats up Nazi zombies.
The People's Party, although in a governing coalition with the Social Democrats on the national level, attempted to portray itself as the best alternative to those keen on breaking the Social Democrats' absolute hold on power. Late Sunday, the party's top candidate, Christine Marek, said her camp stood ready to join forces with Haeupl, who has repeatedly ruled out entering into a coalition with the Freedom Party.
Slightly more than 1.1 million Austrian voters were eligible to participate in the Vienna election, with roughly another 108,000 non-Austrian EU citizens who are registered in the city allowed to cast ballots to pick the leadership of the capital's 23 districts. Preliminary voter turnout was about 56.5 percent.
Final results are not expected until Oct. 18, after some 155,000 issued absentee ballots have been counted. Roughly 130,000 are expected to be valid and could lead to a slight shift in mandates without changing the overall picture, according to Christoph Hofinger of the Institute for Social Research and Analysis.