By Agence France-Presse
Austria is set to move to the right in elections on Sunday with conservative Sebastian Kurz expected to become Europe’s youngest head of government and form a coalition with the anti-immigration Freedom Party.
The center-right People’s Party (OeVP), rebranded by Kurz, 31, as his personal turquoise “movement”, is forecast to come first with over 30 percent, polls suggest.
But in a fresh triumph for Europe’s populists just after Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the third-biggest party in parliament there, the Freedom Party (FPOe) looks set to be second or third with at least 25 percent — double the AfD’s score.
Austria has had almost 150,000 asylum claims since 2015, making the wealthy Alpine country of 8.75 million one of Europe’s highest recipients per capita.
Like the AfD, France’s National Front and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the FPOe — which almost won the presidency in December — has stoked concerns about the influx, while also moving left on social issues.
“No, Islam is not part of Austria,” party head Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, recently told a cheering, flag-waving FPOe rally.
Immigration must stop “until further notice”, its programme says, and asylum is temporary.
“Strache is the counterweight to (German Chancellor) Angela Merkel whose ‘welcome culture’ is destroying Europe,” one FPOe supporter told AFP, not wishing to give his name. “Austrians should come first.”
– Novelty act –
“Wunderwuzzi” (“whizz-kid”) Kurz took over the OeVP in May and ended its acrimonious “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats (SPOe).
Presenting himself as a breath of fresh air despite being in the government since 2011 and the OeVP having been in power nonstop since 1987, the foreign minister helped his party leapfrog the FPOe to lead opinion polls.
This was partly thanks to Kurz swinging to the right, talking tough on immigration and pledging to both shut Islamic kindergartens and cut welfare payments for foreigners.
Kurz and Strache also see eye-to-eye on lowering taxes, reforming Austria’s bloated bureaucracy and wanting the EU to be less involved in how the country is run.
The once-mighty SPOe, in government for a total of around 60 years since 1945, looks set to be the main loser on Sunday despite it too taking a harder line on migrants.
Chancellor Christian Kern, 51, whose business acumen gave the SPOe hope when he took over last May, has suffered a string of mishaps, scandals and resignations.
Most damagingly, an Israeli election consultant — since fired — allegedly set up fake Facebook accounts with anti-Semitic content on behalf of the SPOe to damage Kurz.
Kern has said the SPOe will go into opposition if it doesn’t win the election, making another “grand coalition” unlikely — unless a party coup topples him or he changes his mind.
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