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Kurz's conservatives win Austrian election, still need coalition partner

Reuters , Sunday 29 Sep 2019
Kurz
Head of Austria's Peoples Party and former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks at the final election rally ahead of Austria's parliamentary election, in Vienna, Austria, September 27, 2019. REUTERS
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Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz triumphed in Sunday’s parliamentary election, in which the scandal-tainted far right took a beating and the Greens made gains, leaving Kurz the option of forming a coalition with either of them or others.

The election followed the collapse in May of Kurz’s coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) after a video sting scandal that forced FPO Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache to step down.

Kurz, 33, has emerged largely unscathed from the scandal, even gaining voters from the FPO as it suffered from further allegations last week over lavish and possibly fraudulent expenses Strache claimed from the party.

As predicted by opinion polls for months, Kurz’s People’s Party (OVP) came a comfortable first, with 37.0% of the vote, according to a projection by pollster SORA for national broadcaster ORF published soon after voting ended.

The Social Democrats came second with 21.8%, their worst result since World War Two but still well ahead of the FPO on 16.0% and the resurgent Greens on 14.1%, the projection showed. It had a margin of error of 1.4 percentage points.

 “The ball is in Sebastian Kurz’s court now,” the left-wing Greens’ campaign manager Thimo Fiesel told ORF when asked about a possible coalition with Kurz. “There is still a majority (for Kurz’s OVP) with the FPO.”

Kurz has said he will talk to all parties if he wins the election. His two most likely choices are either to ally with the FPO again or with the Greens and liberal Neos. A centrist coalition with the Social Democrats is possible but unlikely under their current leadership.

While the FPO even issued campaign videos appealing to Kurz to revive their coalition, it was less clear whether they remained keen after their support collapsed by around 10 points compared with the last election in 2017.

 “From my point of view this is no mandate to continue the (previous) coalition,” FPO Chariman Harald Vilimsky told ORF, though he did not rule out another tie-up with Kurz’s party.

Lengthy Talks

Austrian voters are especially concerned about the environment, surveys have shown, and this helped to lift the Greens from less than 4% of the vote at the last election, when they crashed out of parliament.

While they appear able to give Kurz and his party a narrow majority, he is unlikely to want to be at the mercy of a small number of its left-wing lawmakers. That means that if he does ally with the Greens he will probably seek a three-way deal including the liberal, pro-business Neos, who are on 7.6%.

It could take time for the Greens and Kurz to convince their supporters about working with each other. Many Greens voters see Kurz as their enemy since he brought the far-right to power. Many of Kurz’s core voters, such as farmers and big business, are wary of the left-wing Greens.

“We have always said we are prepared to enter exploratory talks but in terms of policy nothing has changed between the OVP and Greens,” Greens’ campaign manager Fiesel said, declining to outline any possible conditions for a coalition deal.

As the campaign wound up last week, the FPO sought to focus attention on its core issue of migration, railing against immigrants in general and Muslims in particular, rather than addressing recent scandals that have eroded its support and could hurt Kurz’s image if he allies with the FPO again.

The widespread assumption among politicians and analysts is that the election will be followed by a long period of coalition talks. The current provisional government of civil servants led by former judge Brigitte Bierlein could therefore remain in place until Christmas or later.

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