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Far-right party triumphs in Austrian elections

A candidate from Austria’s far-right has won most of the votes in the country’s presidential election, preliminary results show, heading to a run-off.

Norbert Hofer of the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPÖ) on Sunday secured 36 percent of the votes, not enough to win the largely ceremonial post outright, however.

Candidates from the two ruling parties failed to even make it to the run-off, which will be held on May 22, according to preliminary results.

Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old independent contender backed by the Greens, who took a pro-refugee stance during the campaign, won almost 20 percent of the vote and will most likely run against Hofer in the May run-off.

Candidates from the Social Democrats and Austrian People’s Party, which together form the ruling coalition government, each received about 11 percent of the votes.

The final results of the first round are expected to be published on Monday.

Incumbent President Heinz Fischer, who served two terms in office, was not allowed to run for a third term.

“This is the beginning of a new political era,” FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache said, calling the results “historic.”

The victory is seen as a big shake-up in Austrian politics as the country has had a president from the Social Democrats or the People’s Party since the end of the Second World War.

“One thing has become clear here — a huge and massive dissatisfaction with the government,” Strache claimed, adding, “I am convinced that as president, Norbert Hofer will act as protector of the Austrian people.”

The election result is also a sign of rising anti-immigration sentiments in Europe, which has been strained under an influx of refugees from war- and conflict-hit countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Austrian governing coalition has been under particular pressure due to the refugee crisis.

Europe also faces a related security threat as European militants, who have been able to freely travel to conflict zones in the Middle East, are increasingly returning to their home countries to apply their terror tactics there.

Austrian presidential Candidate Norbert Hofer of the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) and party head Heinz Christian Strache (L) pose at a TV studio in the capital, Vienna, April 24, 2016. (Photo by AFP)

Pro-refugee protest

Meanwhile, on Sunday, a large crowd of Austrian pro-refugee activists staged a protest rally over controversial new controls on taking refugees at a major crossing on the border with Italy.

The protesters attempted to breach police barriers at the Brenner Pass, located on the border between the two EU countries, and clashed with security forces at the alpine pass. Police forces used batons and pepper spray to push them back.

Austria plans to tighten border controls at the pass from June 1 at the latest, in response to the massive influx of asylum seekers. Italy, however, believes the upcoming measures will breach EU rules on the free movement of people.

Many blame major European powers for the unprecedented exodus of the refugees from their home countries, saying the European states’ policies have led to a surge in terrorism and war in the violence-hit regions, forcing people out of their homes.

More than 180,000 refugees have reached Europe via the Mediterranean Sea so far this year, while over 1,230 people died or went missing in their journey to the continent, according to the latest data by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

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