Calls for change after Austria coalition poll slump

Austrian political parties and commentators called Monday for urgent reforms after the ruling coalition suffered its worst ever election result, on a record low turnout.

The Social Democrats (SPOe) and conservative People's Party (OeVP), who have dominated Austrian politics since 1945 and shared power since 2008, will likely form the new government after jointly scraping past the 50-percent mark.

But political commentators warn that repeating a formula that turned off so many voters over the past five years, with frequent bickering between the coalition partners and a lack of reforms, would be a slap in the face.

"To continue with a grand coalition as if nothing had happened, after yesterday's results, would be to blatantly disregard the will of the voters," said the daily Salzburger Nachrichten.

"Please: a little humility with regards to the results and roll up your sleeves! Voters have no patience left," urged the tabloid Oesterreich.

Far-right parties made an astonishing show in the election, securing almost a third of total votes.

Turnout was the worst ever at an expected 74 percent once absentee ballots have been counted -- only the third time it has dropped below 80 percent.

The results were "a lesson for the coalition parties. Things cannot go on like this," vice-chancellor and OeVP leader Spindelegger acknowledged Sunday.

Ahead of the election, it had looked like the SPOe and OeVP might fall short of a majority, raising hopes they would have to accommodate a third partner who could shake things up.

But Chancellor and Social Democrat leader Werner Faymann has already said he favours the tried and tested partnership with the OeVP.

On Monday he also ruled out a three-way coalition as well as any cooperation with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), which came a close third in the election.

Spindelegger has refused to rule out a three-way partnership with the far-right, raising fears of a repeat of the 1999 election, when the OeVP formed a government with the FPOe, prompting an international outcry.

Political expert Anton Pelinka said there was "a whiff of 1999 in the air."

"The dumbest thing they could do"

Caricatures on Monday depicted the chancellor and vice-chancellor with black eyes, while FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache grinned and flashed thumbs-up and victory signs from most front pages.

Now the SPOe and OeVP, which won 27.1 percent and 23.8 percent of votes respectively, have two options, Peter Ulram of the research institute Ecoquest told AFP.

"They could pretend nothing happened... (but) to carry on as before is certainly the dumbest thing they could do," he said.

The other option was to dive into much-needed and long delayed reforms on pensions and education.

"If they do nothing, they will definitely not make it next time," he warned, looking ahead to 2018 elections.

Even the usually non-interventionist President Heinz Fischer urged a "forward thrust" over the next five years, although he was optimistic the coalition would learn from its mistakes.

The new liberal NEOS party, which won a sensational 4.8 percent to enter parliament for the first time, has already offered to join the coalition and help it with new ideas.

"If the (still) leading parties don't read the signs from election night, it's Strache who will be laughing in first place next time," warned the free newspaper Heute.

Fischer has said he will talk with each party leader before handing out the mandate to form a government. It could still take weeks, if not months to build the new coalition.