Austrian Freedom Party.jpg
Photograph: EPA/FILIP SINGER

Far-right candidate Norbert Hofer won a surprisingly clear victory in the first round of Austria's presidential election on Sunday, in a result that mirrored his Freedom Party's growing popularity over the past year.

Hofer, who is a deputy president of parliament, won 36.6 per cent of the ballots, the ARGE Wahlen polling network said, far more than pre-election surveys had suggested.

It was still unclear whether Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen or the independent Irmgard Griss would advance to the run-off elections in May by winning the second place on Sunday, as they both scored 20 and 19 per cent, respectively.

"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, Strache added.

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

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

Social democratic presidential hopeful Rudolf Hundstorfer and conservative People Party candidate Andreas Khol, each won only 11 per cent of the votes.

However, voters not only opted for the FPOe's anti-immigration and anti-EU stance, but also against the political establishment, which has been dominated for decades by the two centrist coalition parties.

"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.

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.

Van der Bellen has promised that he would not appoint an FPOe-led government, as opposed to his right-wing rival Hofer. Griss has said she would respect the election outcome and would appoint such a cabinet.

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