Austrian protest voters propelled far-right candidate Norbert Hofer to a surprise victory in Sunday's first round of presidential elections that spelled a major defeat for the centrist government coalition.

In the final run-off election in May, the rightist Freedom Party (FPOe) legislator will face off against former Green party leader Alexander Van der Bellen, who came in second among six candidates.

Hofer won 35 per cent of the ballots, far ahead of pre-election surveys and Van der Bellen's 21 per cent, according to projections based on nearly 100 per cent of counted votes.

"This is the start of a new political era," said Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the opposition FPOe.

The result showed the "extreme dissatisfaction" with the coalition government of social democrats and centre-right conservatives, he added.

The Freedom Party has criticized the cabinet for allowing 90,000 asylum seekers into the country last year.

In addition, Austrians have been grappling with slow economic growth and rising unemployment.

Economics Minister and Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner said the vote was marked by voters' "insecurity about the future and fears of decline."

The government, led by social democratic Chancellor Werner Faymann, changed course on migration early this year and announced a series of restrictive border and asylum policies, but the about-turn had no effect on Sunday.

The Social Democrats also suffered a major setback as their candidate Rudolf Hundstorfer received 11 per cent of votes.

The candidate of Mitterlehner's conservative People's Party, Andreas Khol, won the same share.

The two coalition parties have dominated Austria's politics and administration for decades.

"It was a vote against the system. People are unhappy about the way the democracy works," political analyst Thomas Hofer said.

Although it is mostly a ceremonial role, the Austrian president chooses the chancellor and swears in the cabinet after parliamentary elections. He can dismiss the government, even though no president has ever made use of this right.

In light of a possible victory for FPOe in the 2018 parliamentary elections, this year's presidential vote may chart the course of Austrian politics.

The FPOe has enjoyed the support of more than 30 per cent of voters for nearly a year, coinciding with the surging migration crisis.

Hofer has warned that he would dismiss the government if it returns to the previous welcoming migration stance.

However, Hofer sounded a less aggressive note on Sunday.

"No one must fear me," he said.

Van der Bellen has promised that he would not appoint an FPOe-led government.

"The cards are reshuffled," he said Sunday, looking ahead to the second round on May 22.

Chancellor Faymann vowed to improve the government's work as a reaction to the first round, and announced he would vote for Van der Bellen in May because the Green candidate was "a man of reconciliation."

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