Preliminary results indicate that Austrian voters have elected Social Democrat veteran Heinz Fischer to succeed the conservative Thomas Klestil as the country's president, a largely ceremonial post.

Early results showed Mr. Fischer with a clear lead over his conservative rival, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, for the office of federal president.

The preliminary figures showed Mr. Fischer with about 53 percent of the vote compared with about 47 percent for Ms. Ferrero-Waldner. Political experts said this meant the Social Democrat had won.

Mr. Fischer had been tipped to win by pollsters, on the basis of his appeal to Austrians fond of keeping the country's neutrality.

With his apparent victory, the 65-year-old Social Democrat veteran, currently deputy speaker of the Austrian parliament, succeeds President Klestil, who was first elected on a conservative ticket in 1992.

Mr. Klestil's term ended this year, and the conservatives chose Ms. Ferrero-Waldner, the 55-year-old foreign minister, as their presidential candidate.

Austrians appeared uneasy with the backing given to Ms. Ferrero-Waldner by leading Freedom Party members including the right-wing populist Joerg Haider, who several times met with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. Mr. Fischer is an ardent opponent of Mr. Haider and criticized him during the campaign for his dubious comments on the Nazi past.

Norbert Darabos ran the campaign for Mr. Fischer and said his party is optimistic.

"It is very important for us, it is the fourth election we won this year, and I think it will be possible for us to win the next elections on the chancellor," he said. "I think it is now 18-years ago that a Social Democrat had such an important post in Austria [president], and now we feel that it is possible to win the chancellor."

The chancellorship at present is held by a conservative, Wolfgang Schussel.

Ms. Ferrero-Waldner is expected to stay on as foreign minister at least until the summer when a government reshuffle is expected.

The presidency in Austria has mostly a symbolic function, but the president can reject nominations for ministerial posts. Mr. Fischer will be sworn in as president on July 8, in the Austrian parliament.