Austria elections: Sebastian Kurz poised to lead coalition government

Voters went to polls on Sunday in election triggered by government corruption scandal

Former Austrian Chancellor and leader of the Austrian People's Party Sebastian Kurz talks to the media in front of a polling station after casting his vote during elections to the National Council on September 29, 2019 in Vienna, Austria Getty Images
Former Austrian Chancellor and leader of the Austrian People's Party Sebastian Kurz talks to the media in front of a polling station after casting his vote during elections to the National Council on September 29, 2019 in Vienna, Austria Getty Images

Former Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz won the general election on Sunday, in which the far right, tainted by a scandal, lost ground as the Greens gained.

That left Mr Kurz the task of forming a governing coalition.

His centre-right Austrian People’s Party led comfortably in the election, taking 37 per cent of the vote, pollster Sora said soon after voting ended.

The Social Democrats came second with 21.8 per cent, their worst result since the Second World War but still well ahead of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria on 16 per cent and the Greens on 14.1 per cent, the projection showed.

Mr Kurz has said he will have discussion with all parties if he wins the election, but his likely choices are either the Freedom Party again or with the Greens and liberal Neos.

Just four months ago, his 17-month coalition with the Freedom Party collapsed after the "Ibiza Affair".

The scandal, named after the Balearic island where secret filming led to the resignation of Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache.

Mr Strache, who became vice chancellor in 2017, was filmed discussing Russian backing for his party in exchange for political favours, and casually mentioned other corrupt government practices.

While the collapse of the government prompted the current snap election, both coalition parties appear to have emerged from the crisis relatively unscathed.

Only the country’s Green party appears to have made significant gains on the left.

The centre-left Social Democrats failed to make progress in the polls before election day, particularly with the Freedom’s new leader Norbert Hofer offering a clear break from the recent past.

Mr Hofer has said, in anticipation of expected coalition wrangling, that he would like the former coalition partners to work together again.

But before this is possible, Mr Kurz will have to decide whether he can again work with former Freedom Party interior minister Herbert Kickl.

Western countries began to look with concern at their security partnerships with Austria after Mr Kickl approved a raid on the country’s domestic intelligence service.

The possibility of a return to right-wing government, even after the scandal, has made Austria a test case for whether anti-establishment, anti-immigrant parties can survive the transition from opposition to government.

If he chooses not to return to his partnership with Freedom, Mr Kurz will probably have to shift more to the centre-left to create a new grand coalition with the Social Democrats.

Centrist coalitions are the political norm in Austria, governing the country for more than four decades since the end of the Second World War.

But Mr Kurz, 33, promoted himself as a disruptor of the status quo when he ended the last coalition in 2017, blaming the longstanding centrist alliance of infighting and paralysis.

His personal antipathy towards Social Democrats leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner could make a coalition between Mr Kurz and smaller parties more likely.

The conservative party could be forced into a minority government, although this would be unlikely to last and could lead to more elections.

Updated: September 30, 2019 12:50 AM

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