Conservatives Hold Austria, Seek Partners

(CN) — Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s young conservative leader whose first government was brought down by a video scandal involving his far-right coalition partners, easily won a parliamentary vote on Sunday, and now faces a politically risky decision over whom to choose to form a new government.

Former Austrian chancellor and top candidate of the Austrian People’s Party, OEVP, Sebastian Kurz waves to his supporters in Vienna, Austria, on Sunday. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

The tricky part comes next: Kurz will have to decide whether to turn to the left to form a new government, or take his chances again with the far-right Freedom Party.

Kurz formed a coalition government with the Freedom Party in late 2017. That government took a low tax, pro-business, nationalist and anti-immigration stance.

His decision to bring a far-right party into government was viewed with skepticism. The coalition fell apart after the Freedom Party’s leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was caught on video attempting to trade government contracts for campaign support from a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.

On Sunday, Austrian voters gave Kurz their blessing while punishing the Freedom Party. Kurz and his center-right People’s Party won 37% of the vote, a better-than-expected result. The Freedom Party’s vote tally dropped by about 10 percentage points to 16%.

The next biggest group in the new parliament is the center-left Social Democrats, who picked up 22% of the vote. But that was their worst result since World War II and reflects a trend across Europe where Social Democratic parties have suffered losses in recent elections as voters turned against establishment parties.

On the left, it was the Greens who were the big winners. They picked up about 14% of the vote, an increase of about 10 points over the previous elections in 2017. Rising concern over climate change among Austrian voters drove support for the Greens.

Kurz has not said who he would prefer to govern with.

The Freedom Party’s new leader, Norbert Hofer, said he believes it’s best to be in opposition while the party rebuilds after the scandal.

“A party needs to learn from the mistakes of the past and rebuild itself,” he said, according to Deutsche Welle, a German news broadcaster.

The leader of the Greens, Werner Kogler, told reporters that the People’s Party would need to “change radically” its position on climate change and poverty before he would consider entering a coalition with Kurz.

It is possible that Austria will return to an old formula: a coalition between the People’s Party and the Social Democrats. Since World War II, Austria has been governed by one of these two major parties, and they governed together for 44 years. Kurz broke off that arrangement in 2017.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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