Austria conservatives win most votes in snap election while far right suffer losses

Austria's 33-year-old former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was on course to win snap elections on Sunday despite a scandal which engulfed his previous far-right allies, projections showed on Sunday.

Austria conservatives win most votes in snap election while far right suffer losses
Photos: AFP

His erstwhile coalition partners, the scandal-hit far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), meanwhile, dropped from almost 26 percent at the last election to around 16 percent.

The election was triggered by a corruption scandal which engulfed the FPOe in May and brought down the OeVP-FPOe coalition.

The centre-left Social Democrats look set for their worst-ever result on around 22 percent of the vote. 

The Greens were the other big winners, reversing a disastrous performance in 2017 which saw them fail to enter parliament to win at least 13 percent this time round, which would be their best-ever score.

The small liberal NEOS party scored around seven percent.

The parliamentary elections were broughtabout by the “Ibiza-gate” corruption scandal that engulfed Kurz's far-right coalition partner in May, after just 18 months in government together.

Kurz has “nothing to win, but a lot to lose”, Die Presse daily warned in an editorial on Saturday.

“Even with a nice plus on Sunday, it is more difficult for him than in 2017,” it said, adding there was no partner that quite suited any more.

With 6.4 million people eligible to vote, polling stations across the country opened at 7:00 am.

Far-right troubles

Analysts say “whizz-kid” Kurz could once again partner with the Freedom Party (FPOe) in a re-run of the coalition that has been touted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other nationalists as a model for all of Europe.

“We vote to decide in which direction we will go — that of Orban and the populists, or if we stay oriented toward Europe…. we decide if the corruption will go on,” Vienna voter Gabriel Steiner, 29, said.

Fresh allegations of wrong-doing have shaken the far-right FPOe over the past week.

Prosecutors confirmed Thursday they were investigating Heinz-Christian Strache, who resigned as FPOe leader and vice-chancellor in May because of “Ibiza-gate”, over fraudulent party expense claims.

Kurz himself has also warned that left-leaning parties could gain more seats than predicted and then band together to form a coalition without him.

“If there is just a little shift… then there will be a majority against us,” Kurz told supporters at a final rally in Vienna on Saturday.

 Climate matters

Unlike in 2017, the top voter concern is not immigration — a welcome topic for Kurz and his former far-right allies — but climate change.

“It's an important vote for the climate. Past governments have done much too little,” Vienna voter Peter Litzlbauer, 26, said.

Tens of thousands of people marched Friday in Vienna and other Austrian cities to demand the government do more to fight climate change.

The protests were part of global demonstrations led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and the biggest yet in the Alpine country of 8.8 million inhabitants.

Against this backdrop, Austria's Greens — who failed to get into parliament in 2017 in a shock result — look set to make the biggest inroads on Sunday.

They were tipped to garner 13 percent, up 10 percentage points from two years ago.

It remains to be seen if Kurz, a former law student who has enjoyed a rapid ascent through the ranks in Austrian politics, tries to woo them and another small party, the liberal NEOs, to form a partnership.

Another option for Kurz could be to form a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPOe).

Since World War II, either the OeVP or SPOe have always governed, and for 44 years in total the two ruled together, but it was Kurz who ended their last partnership, leading to the 2017 polls.

He has also floated the idea of ruling in a minority government. But this would potentially continue political uncertainty and could even trigger another election.

Either way, negotiations between parties are expected to take months again. 

Ultimately, President Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Greens leader, will need to approve any government.

The OeVP-FPOe government imploded in May when two German media outlets published footage filmed secretly on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza, showing Strache appearing to offer public contracts in exchange for campaign help from a fake Russian backer.

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Austrian president tasks Kurz to form another government

Austria's president on Monday tasked election winner Sebastian Kurz with forming another government, putting the 33-year-old conservative on course to start tough coalition negotiations after his far-right former ally was brought down by scandals.

Austrian president tasks Kurz to form another government
Photo: AFP

Kurz's People's Party (OeVP) came out ahead with 37.5 percent in September 29 elections, but the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) with who he governed from 2017 until the “Ibiza-gate” scandal in May tumbled 10 points down to 16.2 percent.

A big winner of the elections were the Greens with 13.9 percent, up by 10 points, as climate change became a top voter concern.

This places Kurz, who has driven a hard anti-immigration line, in a tough spot to find a suitable coalition partner.

After President Alexander Van der Bellen tasked him to form the government, Kurz said he would start official talks with all parties this week, insisting fighting illegal immigration continued to be a top priority.

“It will be important to continue the resolute path to fight illegal immigration in Austria and also Europe,” he said in a statement broadcast live on national television, standing next to Van der Bellen.

His other priorities are fighting climate change, fending off any economic downturn, offering tax relief and reforming the social welfare system to ensure it is sustainable, even if that's unpopular, he said.

Coalition negotiations are expected to take months.

FPOe leader Norbert Hofer said last week that he didn't see the election result as a mandate to enter a government, but that the situation could be “reassessed” in the “unforeseen situation” that Kurz failed to find a 
coalition partner until next year.

One option, which looks increasingly likely, would be for Kurz to govern with the Greens, but he would need to rebrand himself and may anger some of his more right-leaning voters.

Greens leader Werner Kogler also has said he wants to first assess if it makes sense to enter negotiations, saying he would need a “sign of reversal” from Kurz's past policies.  

The OeVP's partner for decades in the past, the Social Democrats (SPOe), fell to a historic low of 21.2 percent, according to official final results, making them also potential partners for Kurz but leaving them much weakened.

The liberal NEOs took 8.1 percent of the vote.

Kurz became the world's youngest elected leader in 2017, but his government fell apart in May after his vice-chancellor, FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache, was seen in hidden video footage appearing to offer public contracts in exchange for campaign help to a fake Russian backer.

Strache, who led the party for 14 years, resigned from all posts amid the so-called “Ibiza-gate” scandal, and the fresh elections were triggered.

Following further, more recent allegations against Strache — that he abused his party expense account — that cost the party votes, he announced last week that he is withdrawing from politics and public life.