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Long Dominated by Center, Austria Splinters to Left and Right

VIENNA — In Austria, at the very heart of Europe, the center is not holding.After decades in which Austrian politics was dominated by center-right and center-left parties, voters emphatically rejected both in the first round of the election for a new president. The country — focused, like many others in Europe, on the effects of large-scale immigration — now faces a runoff next Sunday between a far-right, anti-immigration populist, who was the leading vote-getter in the first round, and a former Green Party leader.The power of the presidency in Austria is a subject of debate. But the first round of the race stirred upheaval within the governing coalition of the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right People’s Party, including the resignation of Chancellor Werner Faymann, which further undercut the influence and stature of the political middle here.Should the far-right candidate, Norbert Hofer of the Freedom Party, win the presidency, he would be the first right-wing populist to become a head of state in post-World War II Europe.The forces that vaulted Mr. Hofer into the spotlight are evident across much of the Continent, where many traditional parties in the center are embattled and voters are signaling increased discontent with politics as usual. Austria could be a test case for how far voters will go to demand change as immigration joins with diminished economic security and resentment of entrenched elites to create a combustible political mix.In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front is polling far ahead of the governing Socialists, and President François Hollande’s approval ratings have slumped as low as 13 percent a year before he faces another election.To Austria’s east, Prime Minister Viktor Orban rules Hungary with an authoritarian touch, and a conservative government in Poland is molding the news media and the judiciary to its taste. Germany is confronting growing support for the right-wing Alternative for Germany party, and the British referendum in June on whether to leave the European Union is cleaving Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives. That vote could turn on many of the same issues rattling politics elsewhere, including immigration, nationalism and disenchantment with the European bureaucracy in Brussels.But the disruption has been especially pronounced in Austria, the crossroads of a troubled Continent. Despite having dominated politics since 1945, or perhaps because of that dominance, the two major centrist parties could not muster even a quarter of the popular vote between them in the first round of the presidential contest.Continue reading the main storyADVERTISEMENT

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Mr. Hofer won 35 percent. Behind him was the former Green Party leader, Alexander Van der Bellen, with 21 percent. There has not been any polling for the runoff, but all indications are that the race will be tight.The tone of the political debate has added to the fears of many Austrians about the migrants who entered the country last year as hundreds of thousands of people fled Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations for the security and prosperity of Europe. The new arrivals, many of them Muslim, are regularly portrayed in tabloids, and by Mr. Hofer and his party, as freeloaders bringing crime, rape and even murder to this country of 8.4 million people.Photo

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