As discussed earlier, Austria’s young conservative star, Sebastian Kurz, is now assured of becoming the country’s next leader, projections of Sunday’s parliamentary election result showed, but his party is far short of a majority and is likely to seek a coalition with the resurgent far right.
To his supporters, Kurz is Austria’s Macron: a one-man political phenomenon who is the only thing standing between the country’s resurgent nationalists and power. But to his detractors he is the Austrian Trump, who has hijacked one of the country’s two main parties and refashioned it in his own image. His critics say he is only holding the populists back by adopting their anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.
By taking a hard line on immigration that commingled his campaign with that of the Freedom Party (FPO), 31-year old Foreign Minister Kurz managed to propel his People’s Party to first place and draw some support away from an FPO buoyed by Europe’s migration crisis. Both parties increased their share of the vote from the last parliamentary election in 2013, marking a sharp shift to the right. Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats were in a close race with the FPO for second place.
Kurz now has a mandate to form a coalition, replace Social Democrat Christian Kern as chancellor and become the world’s youngest government leader.
With the Freedom Party poised to return to government for the first time since 2005, congratulations poured in from European nationalists including France’s Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, while the World Jewish Congress expressed concern. For German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the result may chip away at a key ally’s pro-European stance in the years ahead.
Frauke Petry, a former head of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party, which drew inspiration from its Austrian counterpart, posted congratulations on Twitter. Ronald Lauder, who heads the World Jewish Congress, said the Freedom Party is “full of xenophobes and racists. It is sad and distressing that such a platform should receive more than a quarter of the vote and become the country’s second party,” he said in an emailed statement. “My only hope is that they won’t end up in government.”
While Sunday’s projected result doesn’t guarantee a coalition with the Freedom Party, Kurz has a mandate to form a government after an early election he triggered by breaking up a coalition with the Social Democrats this year. The final tally may still be influenced by postal ballots, which will only be counted on Monday.
“This is a strong mandate for us to bring about change in this country,” Kurz told cheering supporters in Vienna as the results came in. “It’s about establishing a new political style, a new culture. It is our task to work with all others for our country,” Kurz told his supporters, without revealing which way he was leaning on coalition talks.
Austria, one of Europe’s wealthiest nations of 8.7 million people, whose capital Vienna is ranked every year among the top 3 cities in which to live, was a gateway into Germany for more than 1 million people during the migration crisis that began in 2015. Many of them were fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere. Austria also took in roughly 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers in 2015, one of the highest proportions on the continent. Many voters say the country was overrun.
Kurz’s strategy of focusing on that issue paid off.
Meanwhile, the FPO was short of its record score of 26.9 percent, achieved in 1999, but still has a good chance of entering government for the first time in more than a decade. The OVP and the Social Democrats are at loggerheads, meaning the FPO is likely to be kingmaker. FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who has accused Kurz of stealing his party’s ideas, declined to be drawn on his preferred partner.
“Anything is possible,” he told ORF. “We are pleased with this great success and one thing is clear: nearly 60 percent of the Austrian population voted for the FPO program.”
“There won’t be a debate to leave the EU, but the Freedom Party is strong enough to demand significant concessions” and may lead Austria to align more often with eastern European countries that have challenged Merkel on issues including migration, said Thomas Hofer, a political consultant in Vienna. “Austria has mostly been an ally of Germany for decades, but that picture could change more often now,” Hofer said.
Austria’s two big parties, the People’s Party and the Social Democrats, have governed together for 44 of the 72 years since World War II. While Kurz and Freedom leader Heinz-Christian Strache might shake up Austria’s cozy political order, they broadly agree in pledging business-friendly policies, notably to scrap corporate taxes on retained profits. They’ll also stay in the German-led camp favoring fiscal austerity in the euro area.
So who is Kurz?
Kurz, dubbed both the “Conservative Macron” and “Austrian Trump” due to his age and his party reform, said: ‘I would of course like to form a stable government. If that cannot be done then there are other options,’ adding that he planned to talk to all parties in parliament but would first wait for a count of postal ballots that begins on Monday.
The young leader has pledged to cut benefits for all foreigners in Austria and has vowed to stop the European Union meddling in the country’s politics.
In his victory speech, he said: “I can only say, I am really overwhelmed. We campaigned for several months.”
“We built a massive movement. We had a goal to be the first ones over the (finish) line on October 15. We have made the impossible possible. Thank you for all your work and for this historic success. Today is not about triumphing over others. But today is the day for real change in our country. Today has given us a strong mandate to change this country, and I thank you for that. We were handed a great responsibility from the voters, and we should all be aware of it. We should also be aware that a lot of people have put their hopes into our movement. I can promise you that I will fight with all my strength and all my commitment for change in this country, and I want to invite you all to come along this path together with me.”
Kurz also wants to slash Austria’s red tape and keep the EU out of national affairs.
At 31, Kurz is young even by the standards of Europe’s recent youth movement, which saw Macron enter the Elysee Palace at the age of 39 and Christian Lindner, 38, lead Germany’s liberal Free Democrats (FDP) back into the Bundestag.
Kurz and Lindner showed that young new faces can inject dynamism into old establishment parties that have lost their way with voters. Kurz rebranded the OVP as the New People’s Party and changed its colours from black to turquoise. Lindner used trendy black-and-white campaign posters that showed him staring at his smartphone to revitalise the FDP’s image.
Macron, who formed his own political movement, was able to paint himself as a rebel outsider despite having served for four years under failed French Socialist Francois Hollande.
By taking a hard line on immigration that left little daylight between him and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), 31-year-old Foreign Minister Kurz managed to propel his People’s Party to first place and draw some support away from an FPO buoyed by Europe’s migration crisis. Both parties increased their share of the vote from the last parliamentary election in 2013, marking a sharp shift to the right. Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats were in a close race with the FPO for second place.
Today Kurz was pictured voting in the Austrian capital Vienna alongside his girlfriend Susanne Thier – a finance ministry worker who he met at the age of 18.
Without revealing which way he was leaning on coalition talks, the 31-year-old told his supporters: “It is our task to work with all others for our country.”