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Austria set to elect youngest EU leader in move to the right

Posted: October 16, 2017 at 4:36 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

Voting is under way in Austria in a snap election tipped to see conservative Sebastian Kurz, 31, become the European Union’s youngest leader and form an alliance with the far right.

A rightward shift in the wealthy EU member of 8.75 million people would be a fresh headache for Brussels, as it already struggles with Britain’s decision to leave and the rise of nationalists in Germany, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.

But all signs indicate Austrians want to swap the gridlocked centrist rule for a more hardline government for the first time in a decade.

The People’s party (OeVP) – rebranded by Kurz as his personal “movement” – is projected to win more than 30% of the vote with pledges to be tough on migrants and easy on taxes.

Kurz is likely to form a coalition with the eurosceptic Freedom party (FPOe), forecast to place second or third with at least 25%, polls suggest.

Founded by ex-Nazis after the second world war, the FPOe almost won the presidency last year and topped opinion polls before Kurz’s radical OeVP makeover in spring.

FPOe head Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, railed against asylum-seekers and vowed to stop Austrians from “becoming a minority in our own homeland”, at a rally on Friday.

The embattled Chancellor Christian Kern, 51, and his once-formidable Social Democrats (SPOe) could be flushed into opposition after their promising campaign was riven with blunders and scandals.

Open hostility between the ex-railway chief and Kurz also makes any new attempt at ruling together seem unlikely.

Kern, in office since last May, issued a final warning on Saturday against a rightwing alliance, saying “Austria was at the most important crossroads in decades”.

The OeVP and FPOe already shared power between 2000 and 2007. At the time the alliance with the far right – then led by the late, SS-admiring Joerg Haider – sparked protests and ostracised Austria.

But its return may not trigger the same backlash now that nationalists have gained ground across Europe.

About 6.4 million people are eligible to vote in Sunday’s closely-watched ballot. The first estimates are expected shortly after polls close at 5pm local time.

The early parliamentary election was triggered after Kurz became OeVP leader in May and ended the bickering “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats. He drew young candidates from outside politics and vowed to put “Austrians first”.

“I am feeling optimistic,” OeVP party volunteer Michael Brandstetter said. “The way Kurz goes about things is what has captured people’s minds.”

As foreign minister, Kurz claims credit for closing the so-called western Balkan migrant route in 2016, earning him praise at home.

Pushing far-right themes, he wants to cut benefits for all foreigners and shut Islamic kindergartens. Kurz and Strache also see eye-to-eye on lowering taxes, slashing red tape and keeping the EU more out of national affairs.

Vienna will hold the EU’s presidency in the second half of 2018, just when Brussels wants to conclude Brexit talks in March 2019.

Strache thinks Britain “will probably be better off after Brexit” and pushes for closer ties with eastern and central European countries. 

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