Europe News

Conservative leader Sebastian Kurz wins Austria election but far right takes a beating

Key Points
  • Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz triumphed in Sunday's parliamentary election while the scandal-tainted far right took a beating and the Greens surged.
  • The result left Kurz with the option of forming a coalition with either of them.
Peoples Party (OeVP) top candidate and former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz waves to supporters after Austria's snap parliamentary election in Vienna, Austria September 29, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
Leonhard Foeger | Reuters

Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz triumphed in Sunday's parliamentary election while the scandal-tainted far right took a beating and the Greens surged, leaving Kurz the option of forming a coalition with either of them.

The election followed the collapse in May of Kurz's coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, or 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 siphoning off voters from the FPO as further allegations surfaced last week over lavish and possibly fraudulent expenses Strache claimed from the party. Strache denies any wrongdoing.

As suggested by opinion polls for months, Kurz's People's Party, or OVP, came in a comfortable first, with 37.2% of the vote, according to a projection by pollster SORA for national broadcaster ORF based on a partial vote count.

"It was a difficult four months and now the population has voted us back in," Kurz told his supporters without indicating what his coalition preference might be.

Possible three-way tie-up

His two most likely choices are to ally with the FPO again or else with the Greens, possibly in a three-way tie-up with the liberal Neos. A centrist coalition with the Social Democrats is possible but unlikely under their current leadership.

The SORA projection showed the Social Democrats coming in second with 21.7%, their worst result since World War II but still well ahead of the FPO at 16.0% and the resurgent Greens at a record 14.0%. The projection had a margin of error of 0.9 percentage point.

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

Kurz has repeatedly said he will talk to all parties before narrowing down his preferences.

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 Chairman Harald Vilimsky told ORF, though he did not rule out another tie-up with Kurz's party.

Lengthy talks

Austrian voters' top concern is the environment, surveys show, which helped lift the Greens from less than 4% of the vote in 2017, 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 left-wing lawmakers. If he does ally with the Greens he will probably seek a three-way deal including the liberal, pro-business Neos, who are at 7.8%.

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.

"I've always had the impression that Mr Kurz continues to fancy turquoise-blue," Greens leader Werner Kogler told ORF, referring to an OVP-FPO tie-up. "He was praising its policies up until yesterday. ... We'll see if they think again."

Kogler has said he is prepared to hold exploratory talks but only if Kurz shows quickly that he is serious.

A tie-up with the Greens would at least spare Kurz the whiff of scandal that could accompany the FPO.

Asked whom he should work with, Kurz supporter Jutta Hummel, 58, said at his election party: "Surely not the Freedom Party. That was a complete flop before."

Another, Paul Widmann, was less keen on the Greens, saying, "They make politics for people living in cities, not in rural areas where they need a car."

A long period of coalition talks could leave the current provisional government of civil servants led by former Judge Brigitte Bierlein in place until Christmas or later.