Austria’s Sebastian Kurz set to return to power

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Sebastian Kurz is set to return to the Austrian chancellorship with a significantly strengthened mandate at the expense of his former partners, the far-right Freedom party.

Austrian voters gave him a resounding victory on Sunday, with the far-right and Social Democrats emerging as the biggest losers in the snap election called after the collapse of Mr Kurz’s first government in May.

Mr Kurz’s moderate conservative Austrian People’s party (ÖVP) increased its share of the vote to 38.3 per cent, compared with 31.5 in 2017, giving it its largest lead over any other party in the second republic since its foundation in 1945.

Mr Kurz’s erstwhile partners in government, the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ), which had been expecting a comfortable result, meanwhile saw popular support crumble. The party took just 16 per cent of ballots cast, compared with 26 per cent in 2017, when a truculent campaign against immigration at the height of the European refugee crisis propelled it into power. The party’s unexpectedly poor result is now likely to precipitate a crisis within its ranks as internal factions seek to apportion blame.

[This is] a huge victory for Sebastian Kurz and a huge loss for the Freedom party and also the Social Democrats

Thomas Hofer

The Social Democrats, while holding on to second place, also performed poorly. They saw their share of the vote slip 5 percentage points to just 21.5 per cent, the party’s worst result. The Green party was Sunday’s other big winner, scoring 12.3 per cent, compared with just 3.8 per cent two years ago.

Voters’ support for Mr Kurz has been far greater than expected and represents a significant victory for the 33-year-old’s carefully calibrated and pragmatic style of politics.

Mr Kurz has echoed much of the hardline messaging of the Freedom party on immigration, but has cast himself simultaneously as a pragmatic and moderate statesman. His convincing victory will put to rest many of the questions raised in the course of a long four months of campaigning this summer over his suitability for office after the sudden collapse of his first foray into power.

“[This is] a huge victory for Sebastian Kurz and a huge loss for the Freedom party and also the Social Democrats,” said Austrian political analyst Thomas Hofer. “There has been a big swing in the last few days.”

Mr Kurz was ousted from his first premiership in May after a political scandal brought his alliance with the far-right FPÖ to an abrupt end. He was forced to eject FPÖ ministers from government following the so-called “Ibiza-affair” in which Heinz-Christian Strache, FPÖ leader and Austria’s then vice-chancellor, was secretly filmed soliciting covert political support from Russia in exchange for promises of lucrative government contracts.

Although Mr Kurz’s return to the Ballhausplatz, the Austrian chancellery, was never in doubt, recent weeks have seen considerable uncertainty among the country’s political class as to the scale of the lead over opponents he might be able to pull off.

Polls over the past month showed ebbing support for the ÖVP, with an expected result of around 34 per cent or lower. Analysts say the last week may have proved crucial, however. Further revelations in the Austrian media about an ongoing police investigation into the FPÖ’s Mr Strache – and particularly the large amounts of money the party was still paying him – appear to have caused a revolt among the party’s base, driving voters to the ÖVP.

Mr Kurz’s surge will give him the whip hand in coalition negotiations. But the task of forming a new government will be anything but easy.

FPÖ secretary-general Harald Vilimsky said the results made it unlikely his party would seek to return to government. “We do not interpret this result as a mandate to be in government,” said Mr Vilimsky, saying instead the party was better placed in opposition to “reconnect” with its base. Herbert Kickl, the party’s influential hardline parliamentary leader later appeared to emphasise such sentiments.

If they follow through on these intentions, Mr Kurz’s options will be limited. The FPÖ, despite the controversy surrounding it, was still seen as the most likely option for Mr Kurz.

His other path would be to enter into a “coalition of winners”, said Mr Hofer, either by a partnership with the Greens, or with both the Greens and the liberal Neos, who increased their share of the vote to 7.4 per cent (up 2 percentage points).

A three-way alliance might appeal to Mr Kurz’s preference to confound critics and reassert his reputation for pragmatism. It might also strengthen his hand in Europe. The Greens campaigned on an agenda starkly different in terms of policy from Mr Kurz’s, however, and any accommodation between the two parties would require serious compromises.