Austrians began voting yesterday morning in national elections that could swing the alpine republic back to the political center after more than six years of influence by the extreme right.
After months of campaigning spiced by a bitter debate over immigration, polls suggested as many as one in four of Austria's 6 million voters remained undecided. The main race opposing Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel's center-right Austrian People's Party and Alfred Gusenbauer's center-left Social Democrats was too close to call.
On the eve of the elections, Schuessel reaffirmed his support for the EU's decision to take in Romania and Bulgaria on Jan. 1 next year, and insisted that Croatia should join the bloc as well.
"I want to use the chance that Europe has given us," he told a rally on Saturday.
Schuessel made no mention of mostly Muslim Turkey, whose drive for eventual EU membership is opposed by many Austrians. But his remarks appeared aimed at the far-right Freedom Party and a sister party that campaigned on promises to rid the country of some of its foreign immigrants.
With the race so close, one scenario being floated is a center-right, center-left "grand coalition."
Officials stated that the final outcome might not be clear until Oct. 9, when more than 400,000 absentee ballots and mail-in votes are counted.
The battle for third was also tight, with the Freedom Party and the leftist Greens running neck and neck.
Three other parties -- the rightist Alliance for the Future of Austria, the Communist Party of Austria and Martin's List, a party run by an EU parliamentarian -- were hoping for at least 4 percent of the vote, the minimum needed to secure seats in parliament.
The current governing coalition is made up of the People's Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria, founded by former Freedom Party leader Joerg Haider.
But the right was expected to lose power. Although the Freedom Party appeared poised to get 10 percent, the main parties have ruled out including it in a new coalition, and analysts predicted the Alliance for the Future of Austria might not make the 4 percent cut.
In 1999, the Freedom Party's stunning 27 percent win in national elections -- and its subsequent inclusion in the government -- sparked months of EU diplomatic sanctions because of concerns over Haider statements perceived as anti-Semitic and sympathetic to Nazi Germany's labor policies.
Schuessel, closing out his party's campaign, chided rightists for stirring up fears "that we will be inundated with foreigners ... that the [EU] leaves us no breathing room ... that globalization is rolling over us."