Reuters International

Austrian far right Freedom Party supporters wave flags during the final election rally in Vienna, Austria, April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

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By Francois Murphy

NICKELSDORF, Austria (Reuters) - Nickelsdorf, a sleepy town set amid fields and wind turbines near Austria's border with Hungary, is not the sort of place where national elections are usually decided.

But for six weeks last autumn, it was swept up in Europe's biggest migration crisis since World War Two. As many as 15,700 people passed through daily, many fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere, almost all heading west to Germany.

"It was a security nightmare because no one knew who was coming," said Mayor Gerhard Zapfl, a Social Democrat, referring to the fact that those pouring across the border from Hungary were not identified, largely due to the sheer numbers involved.

Since then, a strong sense that Austria - and Europe - is losing control of its borders has shaken national politics, culminating in the victory of the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) in the first round of a presidential election on April 24.

The FPO's Norbert Hofer, running on an anti-immigrant, anti-Europe platform, now faces former Greens leader Alexander van der Bellen in a runoff vote on May 22.

Austria's Social Democrat Chancellor Werner Faymann resigned this week, taking responsibility for his party's failure to make the second round.

Though the presidency is a largely ceremonial role, the FPO's success is a blow to the traditional political order.

And few places symbolise the upheaval as much as Nickelsdorf, where Hofer won 44 percent of the vote in the first round, well above the national rate of 35 percent and almost twice the party's support in a 2013 parliamentary election.

"It's simply enough," Michael, a 23-year-old cook who voted for Hofer, said at the bar of a petrol station, adding that the ruling Social Democrats and their centre-right coalition partner the People's Party (OVP) "just can't get anything done anymore".

Like several other supporters of the FPO, Michael declined to give his surname and gave few specific reasons for backing a party that has proven adept at tapping into ordinary people's deep feelings of insecurity in a fast-changing globalised world.

"FEAR OF FALLING"

"It's time for a change. It can't go on like this," said Maria, 55, a supermarket employee in Simmering, a largely working-class district of Vienna.

In a political system dominated for decades by the SPO and OVP, the FPO presents itself as an underdog and a vehicle of protest, despite having served in national government in the early 2000s and in provincial administrations.

"Austria is still better off and safer than almost all other countries, but people are looking down and they are afraid of falling," political analyst Christoph Hofinger said.

"And there is no narrative saying 'This is where we are taking you'. That is one of the government's biggest failings here."

The FPO is already framing the terms of much national debate, forcing the government onto the defensive on issues such as public security and unemployment. When steps are taken to restrict asylum claims, they are seen as FPO-inspired.

Even the Social Democrats, who are in coalition with the FPO in one provincial assembly, are openly debating whether to work more with a party they once saw as beyond the pale.

"It is legitimate to work together," said Nickelsdorf's mayor Zapfl.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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