FPO candidate Norbert Hofer © AFP

Austria’s far-right Freedom party won an unexpectedly powerful victory in the first round of the country’s presidential election, highlighting the potential for Europe’s refugee crisis to send shockwaves across the continent.

FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer won more than 35 per cent of the vote in Sunday’s poll — far more than any other candidate — with most of the vote counted. He had campaigned on a nationalistic platform of strict limits on immigration, tough rules for asylum seekers and the break-up of the two-party system that has dominated Austrian politics since the second world war.

The result demonstrated the surging support for anti-immigrant parties in Europe. Although the Austrian president has largely a ceremonial role, it was the strongest national performance ever by the FPÖ, one of Europe’s best established far-right parties.

The result sent a signal to other European countries that the refugee crisis mattered hugely, said Franz Schellhorn, director of Agenda Austria, a think-tank. “You can’t just say we’re going to manage it, it is not a problem. This is the lesson from Austria.”

Since 1945, the occupants of Vienna’s Hofburg palace have been backed by either the centre-left Social Democratic party (SPÖ) or the centre-right People’s party (ÖVP), which currently form a coalition government. But in a historic upset, the two main parties’ presidential candidates each polled only around 11 per cent.

The election of a Freedom party candidate in the final election round on May 22 could trigger a political crisis in Vienna, especially if Mr Hofer tried to obstruct or even dismiss the government, led by social democratic chancellor Werner Faymann.

More broadly, Sunday’s results are likely to increase nervousness in capitals across Europe about the surge in populist, fringe and extremist political parties.

In next year’s French presidential elections, National Front leader Marine Le Pen is expected to push socialist incumbent François Hollande out of the race. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s centre-right bloc has lost support to the rightwing Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Following Sunday’s poll, opponents of the FPÖ are likely to coalesce around his opponent in the May 22 poll. That will be the Greens’ Alexander Van der Bellen, who won 21 per cent of the vote. Irmgard Griss, an Austrian judge who ran as an independent, was third with 19 per cent.

But the surprisingly strong FPÖ vote — much higher than predicted by opinion polls — suggested attempts to prevent the far-right party taking the presidency on May 22 would “be a real uphill struggle”, said Thomas Hofer, a political analyst in Vienna.

The poll had exposed the deep unpopularity of Austria’s political establishment, he said. “The system as we know it has come to an end. There is a huge frustration and you can see that in these results.”

When thousands of refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria reached Europe, Mr Faymann initially backed Germany’s stance. But with support for his policies falling and the country’s institutions straining to cope with hundreds of thousands of arrivals in Austria, his government reversed its position. Measures to halt immigration inflows along the so-called “Balkan route” have strained relations between Vienna and Berlin.

Speaking at his final campaign rally in Vienna on Friday, the FPÖ’s Mr Hofer stressed Austria’s limited capacity to absorb newcomers, saying “we are not the world’s social department”.

He sharply criticised, too, concessions Ms Merkel had made to Turkey in an attempt to resolve the crisis and said Islam could not become part of Austrian culture. Mr Hofer also called into question the west’s economic sanctions against Russia.

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