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Conservative Sebastian Kurz Set to Return as Austria's Leader after Far-Right Tumbles

Kurz's former allies, the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), were the biggest losers, falling 10 percentage points to stand at around 16 percent following the spectacular 'Ibiza-gate' affair.

AFP

Updated:September 29, 2019, 11:02 PM IST
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Conservative Sebastian Kurz Set to Return as Austria's Leader after Far-Right Tumbles
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. (REUTERS)

Vienna: Austrian conservatives won most seats in snap elections Sunday, putting their leader Sebastian Kurz on track to retake power but forcing him into tough coalition negotiations after a corruption scandal sent his far-right former allies tumbling.

Kurz's People's Party (OeVP) won 37 per cent, up almost six percentage points from the last election two years ago, but not enough to form a government on its own, according to projections.

The Greens were big winners amid voters saying the climate was their top concern, securing at least 13 percent of the vote. That means they will be viable coalition partners for Kurz in the new government.

Kurz's former allies, the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), were the biggest losers, falling 10 percentage points to stand at around 16 percent following the spectacular "Ibiza-gate" affair.

The scandal broke in May, bringing down the OeVP-FPOe coalition after just 18 months in government and triggering the snap poll. The centre-left Social Democrats look set for their worst-ever result on around 22 per cent of the vote, with the liberal NEOS party winning around seven percent.

The Greens -- who failed to make it into parliament in the last elections in 2017 in shock results -- looked to have surged 10 percentage points to at least 13 per cent.

This puts Kurz -- a former law student, who has enjoyed a rapid ascent through the ranks to become the youngest-ever chancellor in 2017 -- in a tough spot if he wants to try to woo them and rebrand himself as fighting climate change rather than immigration.

"It's an important vote for the climate. Past governments have done much too little," 26-year-old Peter Litzlbauer, 26, told AFP after casting his vote in Vienna. Kurz has said before the polls he would keep all options open.

However, as the Die Presse daily noted in its editorial on Saturday, "even with a nice plus on Sunday, it is more difficult for him than in 2017" to construct a suitable coalition.

"We had too much chaos in the last months. We hope for something less chaotic," Vienna voter Clara Heisinger told AFP.

The FPOe loss was more than expected following the "Ibiza-gate" scandal which brought down its long-time leader Heinz-Christian Strache and a fresh investigation against him announced this week -- this time over alleged fraudulent expense claims.

One FPOe MEP, Harald Vilimsky, told Austrian television the party needed to "win back the confidence of voters" and threw doubt on any return to government.

Previously, a renewed coalition with the far-right -- touted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other nationalists as a model for all of Europe -- looked likely until the new allegations shook the party this week.

"We are voting to decide in which direction we will go -- that of Orban and the populists, or if we stay oriented toward Europe.... we are deciding if the corruption will go on," said Vienna voter Gabriel Steiner, 29.

Since World War II, either the OeVP or SPOe have always been in government, and for 44 years in total the two have ruled together. But it was Kurz who ended their last "grand coalition", leading to the 2017 polls.

He has also floated the idea of ruling in a minority government. But this would potentially further bring political uncertainty and even trigger another election. Either way, negotiations between parties are expected to take months.

Ultimately, President Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Green 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 then FPOe leader Strache appearing to offer public contracts in exchange for campaign help from a fake Russian backer.

In the aftermath, Strache resigned from all posts, including that of Kurz's vice-chancellor.

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