Austrians shifted to the right in Sunday’s parliamentary elections, giving the far-right Freedom Party a mandate to enter coalition talks with young conservative victor Sebastian Kurz, who fell short of a parliamentary majority.
Austrian foreign minister and People’s Party (OVP) chief Kurz, 31, is on track to become one of the world’s youngest leaders after securing 32 per cent of votes. During the campaign, he had taken a hard line on immigration, which blurred lines with the Freedom Party (FPO).
Austria was a gateway into Germany for more than 1 million people during the migration crisis that began in 2015 and took in 1 per cent of its population as asylum seekers in 2015. Many voters said their country was overrun and the crisis helped buoy right-wing parties.
Current Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats secured the second position, but they could be dislodged with 8,89,000 postal ballots to be counted by Monday evening, but a final count might not be available until Thursday. Postal ballots amount to one-sixth of ballots cast. A third-place finish can weaken them in coalition talks.
Kurz’s party will probably need a coalition partner. An alliance with the FPO is the most likely option. However, Kurz said, “Neither a coalition with the FPO nor one with the SPO has been agreed. We have to wait for the result.” Any coalition between two of the top three parties is possible since the SPO has lifted a self-imposed ban on coalitions with the FPO. But if the Social Democrats come third, it is unlikely to form an alliance with the FPO as that will make its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, the chancellor.
Kern’s Social Democrats appear split on how to proceed after years of bickering, with long-term coalition partner OVP making a centrist alliance all but impossible amid distrust of the far right. Labour union association chief Erich Fogler said the SPO should try to realise its goals in government rather than the opposition.
But, Kern seemed to distance himself from a fresh bid for centrist cooperation. “Of course, we will not refuse to take part in talks. I am concerned to a certain extent that we will not find common ground easily. That will require a very significant willingness from both sides to make compromises,” he said.
Hans Niessl, Social Democrat governor of the province of Burgenland where he rules in coalition with the Freedom Party, echoed Vienna mayor and SPO left-wing firebrand Michael Haeupl’s comments that a tie-up with the FPO in Vienna was unlikely.
The President of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, who was the US Ambassador to Austria from 1986 to 1987, called for the Freedom Party to be kept out of the government. The FPO, which was founded by former Nazis, has had to throw out party officials on a regular basis in Nazi-related scandals. Its sister parties are France’s Front National and Germany’s AfD.
“It is sad and distressing that such a platform should receive more than a quarter of the vote,” Lauder said. The Freedom Party, which says it has rid its rank of anti-Semitic elements, had said it shared an enemy with Israel in political Islam.
A projection by pollster SORA showed the OVP winning with 31.6 per cent based on a count of all non-postal ballots. The SPO was at 26.9 per cent with the FPO at 26.0 per cent.