What happens next? Austria’s Kurz faces tricky search for partners despite victory

The 33-year-old leader of Austria's centre-right People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz faces the start of a tough search for possible coalition partners Monday, despite resounding success in parliamentary elections.

What happens next? Austria's Kurz faces tricky search for partners despite victory
Photo: AFP

The OeVP won a clear victory with around 37 percent in Sunday's vote, a marked improvement on its performance in 2017 and a result which means Kurz will have the responsibility of sounding out other parties — which may now be an uphill task.

Kurz's triumph comes despite the fact that his last government collapsed in May after his far-right coalition allies, the Freedom Party (FPOe), was engulfed in the “Ibiza-gate” corruption scandal which led to the resignation of its leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

In the week before the vote the FPOe was hit by further allegations of expenses abuse by Strache and suffered a worse than expected loss, down almost 10 percent from 2017 to around 16 percent, according to projected results.

The OeVP-FPOe alliance — hailed as a model by nationalists across Europe, including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban — now seems unlikely to be repeated as FPOe leaders took to the airwaves to say they would prefer to lick their wounds in opposition.

Dejected FPOe leader Norbert Hofer, who took over from Strache, says steps towards the “reconstruction” of the party will be announced in the coming days and has not ruled out expelling Strache if the expenses allegations turn out to be true.

Riding the Green wave

Kurz — who become Austria's youngest-ever chancellor at 31 in 2017 — may instead turn to Sunday's other big winners, the Green party.

Helped by the climate crisis shooting up the list of voters' concerns over the summer, the Greens were able to notch up their best-ever result of around 14 percent — a dramatic reversal from 2017 when they failed to enter parliament. 

The Greens and the OeVP already sit together in government in the provinces of Tyrol and Salzburg, which some have pointed to as an example that could be replicated on a national level.

However, cooperation on a national level may be more tricky.

National Green leader Werner Kogler said on Sunday the party would need to reflect on whether a coalition “makes any sense whatsoever”.

“Radical change” would be necessary from the OeVP, Kogler said, pointing not only to action on climate change, but also fighting corruption and poverty.

Polling by the SORA institute shows that both parties' voters are sceptical of each other, with only 20 percent of OeVP voters wanting to the see the Greens in government and 32 percent of Green voters wanting the OeVP in government.

Going it alone?

Kurz could also consider the most traditional form of governance in Austria, a “grand coalition” between the OeVP and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe).

But while mathematically possible, this is hampered by the fact that the SPOe share of the vote fell five points to around 22 percent, the party's worst post-war result in a parliamentary election.

As a result SPOe leaders say that the party should undergo a period of reflection on how it can be reformed to better communicate its message.

In any event, it is unlikely that this option would be palatable to Kurz — who himself pulled the plug on the last grand coalition in 2017 — or to SPOe leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner, who had several heated exchanges with Kurz on the  campaign trail.

According to political scientist Peter Filzmaier, “Kurz has to disappoint some of his voters, no matter who he goes into coalition with”.

For example, a partnership with either the SPOe or the Greens would be hard to explain to the some 258,000 voters who are estimated to have switched to Kurz from the far-right.

A final option for Kurz would be a minority government.

“That has become very, very tempting” for him, says analyst Johannes Huber.

But even this scenario would need support from another party for the OeVP to survive key votes in parliament, failing which the country could be asked to go to polls again in a few months.

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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.