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Protesters march as they demonstrate against Austrian Freedom Party's (FPOe) Akademikerball ball in Vienna, Austria,February 3, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader


By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) - The far-right Freedom Party's lead in opinion polls over the Social Democrats in Austria has shrunk to within the margin of error after more than a year of dominance marked by Europe's migration crisis, several recent surveys have shown.

The latest survey, by pollster Market for newspaper Der Standard published on Monday, had similar findings to other recent polls, showing the Freedom Party (FPO) on 30 percent, the Social Democrats (SPO) on 29 percent, and the SPO's coalition partner, the conservative People's Party (OVP), on 20 percent.

The shift is a fresh blow to the anti-immigration FPO after its candidate lost a close-fought presidential run-off election last year. The party had hoped to ride a populist wave after Britain's vote to leave the European Union.

Movements in support for far-right parties are being closely watched across Europe. The anti-Islam, anti-EU party of Dutch politician Geert Wilders took second place in an election last week, while National Front leader Marine Le Pen is expected to reach the second round of France's presidential vote in May.

The Austrian poll findings suggest the centrist coalition government, or at least Chancellor Christian Kern's SPO, is gaining traction with a new policy programme aimed at eroding FPO support, which includes a ban on Muslim face-covering veils and a range of security measures.

The next parliamentary election is due in autumn 2018 but regular squabbling between the coalition parties has led many voters to see the government as ineffective and prompted speculation that it will collapse, which would force a snap election.

The new coalition agreement reached in January made that seem less likely, but each disagreement between ministers from different parties revives debate about whether the coalition will complete its term as Kern says he expects it to.

Until recently, polls consistently showed the FPO had a clear lead over the SPO, often with support of roughly a third. Respondents are usually asked how they would vote if a parliamentary were held within a week.

Opinion polls in Austria often have a small sample size and a large margin of error. The Market study carried out on March 15-17 was relatively typical, with a sample of 412 and a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

Other surveys published this month have shown the FPO on 31 and 33 percent, and the SPO consistently on 29 percent, with the OVP between 19 and 22 percent.

Polls have regularly shown Kern, who took over as chancellor in May, is more popular than his own party while FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache is less popular than his. Monday's poll showed Kern had a 56 percent approval rating when voters were asked what they thought of various countries' leaders.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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