Exit polls suggest victory for Sebastian Kurz in Austrian election

World Monday 30/September/2019 10:38 AM
By: Times News Service
Exit polls suggest victory for Sebastian Kurz in Austrian election

Vienna: Support for Austria’s Freedom party (FPÖ) has plunged by more than a third as voters punished the far-right group in national elections for a corruption scandal that brought down the government.

The former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, 33, looks certain to reclaim his position as the youngest leader in the world after his conservative People’s party (ÖVP) secured 37.1 per cent of the vote – its best result since 2002.

The Green party was the other big winner on Sunday, achieving its best result at national elections with 14 per cent. The centre-left Social Democratic party (SPÖ) plummeted to a historically low 21.7 per cent but was still the second-biggest party.

The FPÖ – whose former leader Heinz-Christian Strache resigned in May after a covertly filmed video showed the then vice-chancellor offering lucrative public contracts in exchange for campaign support to a woman he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch – came third with 16.1 per cent, a drop of about 10 percentage points.

Since June, Austria has been led by a caretaker government headed by the constitutional lawyer Brigitte Bierlein, after Kurz became the first chancellor in the country’s modern history to be removed from office by a no-confidence vote.

But the result on Sunday shows Kurz, who became foreign minister aged 27 and has reshaped the ÖVP in his image since he took over the party’s leadership in 2017, has emerged largely unscathed from what is known as the “Ibiza scandal”.

The Green party, which in 2017 failed to get over the 4 per cent threshold for the first time since 1983, gained 10.2 percentage points to re-enter parliament, fuelling speculation Kurz could invite it to form a government, possibly in a three-way alliance with the pro-business, liberal NEOS party, which took 7.8 per cent.

While Green supporters frantically celebrated the result, a coalition with the ÖVP is only backed by a third of its members.

With Strache banished from office and the FPÖ under new leadership, a renewed alliance between the conservatives and the far right was considered the most likely outcome – until Sunday evening, when the party performed considerably worse than expected. On Austrian television, its general secretary, Harald Vilimsky, said FPÖ had “no mandate” to enter another coalition with Kurz.

The party, which is led by the hardline former interior minister Herbert Kickl and the 2016 presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, has openly rallied for a reunion with the ÖVP. Its campaign video shows Hofer readjusting a portrait of the 33-year-old former chancellor to stop it “tilting to the left”.

For Kurz, a renewed pact with a diminished far right would likely tilt the balance of power in his favour. Before the election on Sunday, he appeared to have already ruled out handing another post to Kickl.

Kurz also knows he can contain the aggressive style of rightwing populists more easily by keeping them close rather than pushing them on to the opposition benches.

Nonetheless, there is strong opposition across the country to an ÖVP-FPÖ alliance, as well as in Kurz’s party. During the year-and-a-half in which the FPÖ took part in Austria’s government, it managed to rack up a large number of minor and major scandals.

Martin Kotynek, writing in the newspaper Der Standard, said: “The coalition with the FPÖ was a mistake. Kurz overestimated its capability for government. Now he has a chance to correct that mistake.”

The FPÖ was the only party not to be invited to hustings organised specifically for Austria’s Jewish community. Bini Guttmann, the incoming president of the European Union of Jewish Students, described the party as “structurally antisemitic”.

Kurz on Sunday night signalled he was willing to enter coalition talks with both FPÖ and the Greens: “I have promised to hold talks with all parties”, the Vienna-born politician said. “And I sure won’t break my promise on the night of the vote.”

A “grand coalition” with the SPÖ, which has been the norm for much of the period since the second world war, has come to be associated with political stasis and infighting, and would sit uneasily with Kurz’s reformist agenda.

In his election manifesto, Kurz promised tax cuts for businesses and families and €5bn (£4.5bn) in public spending reductions. “I want to pursue decent centre-right politics,” he told the state broadcaster ÖRF.

In the run-up to the election, Kurz and Kickl used the same slogan in their poster campaign – “Someone who speaks our language” – next to a photo of the lead candidate.

The SPÖ, which is led by a woman, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, for the first time in its history, has struggled to profit from the corruption scandal.