“Austria is at the most important crossroads in decades,” Christian Kern told a rally of his Social Democrats (SPOe) in Vienna a day ahead of elections in the wealthy but disgruntled Alpine nation.
“Do we want an Austria where the rich get richer and where the social security system, healh and education are under attack? Or an Austria where everybody has an opportunity?” he said.
After a campaign beset by scandals, missteps and resignations, the odds appear to be against Kern, 51, the former Austrian Railways boss parachuted in by the SPOe as chancellor in May 2016.
Polls put “wunderwuzzi” (“whizz-kid”) Sebastian Kurz, 31, and his centre-right People's Party (OeVP) in first place with over 30 percent and on course to become Europe's youngest leader.
His most likely coalition partner is seen as the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe), which may humiliatingly relegate the once-mighty SPOe into third place.
FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache, who flirted with neo-Nazism in his youth, would be deputy chancellor, 17 years after Joerg Haider alarmed Europe and Israel by taking the party into government.
“In parts of society we are becoming a minority in our own country,” Strache, 48, told a Vienna rally late Friday. “Let's get rid of this…government before the Austrian people disappear.”
Kurz could also go into yet another “grand coalition” with the SPOe, but the outgoing one was acrimonious and unpopular with Kern and Kurz visibly disliking each other.
“I'll shoot myself,” one FPOe supporter told AFP.
Until earlier this year, the FPOe was on a roll, its candidate almost becoming president in December.
Like Alternative for Germany, Marine Le Pen's National Front in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the FPOe stoked concerns about Europe's migrant crisis to boost support.
Sharply critical of the European Union in its current form, Strache attacked the crusty SPOe and OeVP, moved to the left on social issues and went neo-liberal on the economy.
“Only if we cut taxes can firms make a profit, invest, and secure and create jobs,” Strache said Friday. “We need to hike wages so that people can live.”
But when rosy-cheeked Kurz, who is foreign minister, became OeVP party chief in May, revamping the party as his own personal “movement”, he stole supporters from Strache in droves.
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Kurz pledges to close Islamic kindergartens and cut immigrants' benefits. He claims credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016 that brought hundreds of thousands of migrants to Europe.
In slick campaign adverts of him scaling the Alps, he has promised – echoing the FPOe – to slash taxes and red tape and “return this beautiful country to the peak”.
Austrian firms have indeed long complained about onerous rules and Austria no longer has the EU's lowest unemployment. Growth in 2017 though will be the fastest in years.
“The OeVP and the FPOe are promising billions of euros in tax gifts for the big companies that finance their campaigns,” Kern said on Saturday.
“But it won't be the OeVP and the FPOe who pay the bill, it will be ordinary Austrians. We are here to stop this.”
“I don't want friends of Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in power,” SPOe supporter Elisabeth Untermayer, 68, told AFP, remembering protesting in 2000 when the FPOe last entered government.
“I will demonstrate again if I have to. But I don't think the protests will be so big. Society has moved to the right. The refugees issue has changed things a lot.”