VIENNA, OCT. 7 -- Austria's ruling Socialists coasted to victory in parliamentary elections tonight, but their conservative coalition partners suffered significant losses at the hands of the far-right Freedom Party.
Near final returns showed the Socialists, buoyed by the enormous popularity of party leader and Chancellor Franz Vranitsky, winning 81 seats in the 183-member Federal Assembly -- a gain of one -- while their People's Party allies lost 17 of their 77 seats, the party's worst electoral defeat since its founding in 1945.
The big gainer was the Freedom Party, which won 17 percent of the vote, up from 10 percent in the last elections three years ago, increasing its membership in the assembly from 18 seats to 33.
A fourth major party, the Green Alternatives, an environmentalist bloc, won nine seats, a gain of one.
The People's Party had been a minority partner in the Socialist-led coalition government since the 1986 elections, and Vranitsky invited it tonight to continue in that role, although political observers said this would likely be with reduced cabinet representation given the party's poor showing at the polls. Leaders of both parties had vowed before the election that neither would consider a coalition with the Freedom Party.
Headed by the charismatic Joerg Haider, 40, the Freedom Party had based its campaign on strong appeals to nationalism, attacks on alleged government cronyism and corruption, and denunciation of Austria's relatively liberal immigration policies for residents of the former communist countries of Eastern Europe. "Don't Let Vienna Turn Into Chicago!" urged party posters plastered around Vienna, a reference to the ethnic makeup and crime-ridden past of the American Midwest metropolis.
Helmut Kukacka, general secretary of the People's Party, called the vote results a "heavy, depressing defeat," adding: "We are certainly the big losers." The party still bears the burden of its support four years ago for President Kurt Waldheim, a prominent People's Party member, who has been accused of concealing his World War II past. The party's leader, Josef Riegler, has been effectively relegated to the political sidelines as vice chancellor of a government dominated by Vranitzky.
Former People's Party cabinet member Fritz Bok said the conservatives suffered also because they declined to pander to Austrian xenophobia. The Socialists, partly in response to demands by Haider and without People's Party support, last month pushed through a measure requiring entry visas for Poles and the stationing of troops along the former "Iron Curtain" frontier to prevent illegal crossings.
The Socialists ascribed their solid showing to effective leadership and the personal popularity of Vranitsky, 53, by far the most highly regarded politician in Austria.
In the midst of the campaign, former Socialist chancellor Fred Sinowatz was convicted of perjury in a case related to the party's 1985 plans to divulge the wartime past of then-presidential candidate Waldheim. Sinowatz and two colleagues also have been charged with abuse of office in connection with arms sales to Iran and Iraq, but Vranitzky has not been implicated in these cases or any of several other current proceedings involving alleged malfeasance by Socialist Party officials.
Aside from corruption charges and the immigration question, the only other major issue in a generally lackluster campaign was Austria's effort to enter the European Community, which only the Greens opposed.