Austria Elects Left-Wing President

VIENNA -- A Social Democrat has won the presidency over a conservative backed by right-wing firebrand Joerg Haider, giving a leftist the post of Austrian head of state for the first time in 31 years.

Deputy parliament speaker Heinz Fischer, the candidate of the main opposition party, won more than 53 percent of the votes cast, outpolling Foreign Minister Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the conservative endorsed by Haider, by more than 5 percent.

But turnout of just over 70 percent -- the lowest ever for Austrian presidential elections -- reflected widespread voter sentiment that the presidency is relatively unimportant in a political system where the chancellor -- Austria's prime minister -- makes most important decisions.

The president is commander in chief of the country's tiny military, and the constitution gives the president the power to reject nominations for Cabinet ministers or even to remove them from office -- something that has rarely been done.

Haider's backing of Ferrero-Waldner -- and her rival's critical stance toward the Austrian rightist, whose appeal extends to the neo-Nazi fringe -- added spice to the race for the mostly ceremonial position.

Inadvertently, Haider's endorsement of Ferrero-Waldner appeared to help Fischer. Maria Vassilakou of the environmentalist Green party said it "obviously mobilized Green voters" behind the Social Democratic victor.

Ferrero-Waldner was formally supported by the conservative People's Party, the senior partner of Haider's right-leaning Freedom Party in the Austrian government.

Although the post of president is largely ceremonial, the defeat of the candidate supported by the governing coalition appeared to show some voter disenchantment with the government midway through its term over pension reforms that cut into traditionally generous retirement benefits.

The rightist Freedom Party, whose former leader, Haider, is notorious for past remarks that sounded sympathetic to the Nazis and contemptuous of Jews, did not give an official endorsement.

Still, Haider made several campaign stops with Ferrero-Waldner and -- along with other senior Freedom Party figures -- said he would vote for her.

Fischer, in contrast, had been criticized by Haider and his colleagues for repeating his rejection of Haider's controversial remarks and for distancing himself from Freedom Party policies.