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Austria: dust settles on heated election

On 15 October, Austria voted in one of the most heated elections for many years. It now seems likely that Sebastian Kurz will become the country’s new Chancellor, a result that will have implications throughout the continent.

Aged only 31, Kurz is set to become Europe’s youngest premier. Suave and charismatic, he has rebranded the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) in his own image. Since 2013 Kurz has served as Austria’s Foreign Minister. In this position he called for tighter control over the EU’s external borders and led a controversial amendment to Austria’s Islam law. Key pledges of his recent election campaign include a curb of immigration and a reduction of refugee financial support.

However, Kurz did not win an outright majority. At 32 percent he secured the largest vote share, but will require a coalition partner in order to take government. The socially democratic SPÖ finished second, but it is the third place Freedom Party that grabbed news headlines. The Freedom Party was founded by a former Nazi official, and their current leader Heinz-Christian Strache has previously been arrested for participating in a banned neo-Nazi rally. Their policies show extreme opposition to immigrants, especially Muslims. Their candidate for the ceremonial role of President in the 2016 election missed out by a whisker to the Green Party candidate, a swing of just three percent away from capturing the Head of State role.

It now seems likely that Kurz’s ÖVP will approach the Freedom Party as potential partners. Should he do so, the Freedom Party will play a significant role in government. With 26 percent of the popular vote, the Freedom Party have earned themselves a significant voice in any coalition they enter.

It is worth noting that, despite this strong performance, the ÖVP will be slightly disappointed. Before the meteroic rise of Kurz, the Freedom party had been leading the polls.

However, not since 2000 has Austria seen the formation of a People’s/Freedom Party coalition. Back then the result was met with EU diplomatic sanctions and global outrage.

Today the world watches on with quiet acceptance – a striking sign of how far European politics has changed in recent years.

24/10/2017

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danielpeters