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Austrian opposition, environmental groups fault coalition deal

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian opposition parties and environmental groups on Friday criticised a new coalition deal between conservatives and the Greens as heavy on the centre-right party’s law-and-order agenda while delaying urgently needed action on climate change.

FILE PHOTO: Head of Austria's Green Party Werner Kogler and head of People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz shake hands after delivering a statement in Vienna, Austria January 2, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Conservative leader Sebastian Kurz has touted his deal, which would reinstate him as chancellor and bring the left-wing Greens to power for the first time, as “the best of both worlds”, combining both parties’ core campaign pledges.

The awkward alliance between ideological adversaries is being watched closely in Europe, particularly in Germany where similar voting patterns might make it a potential model for Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats after she retires.

The deal must still be approved by a Greens party meeting on Saturday.

“It is not the best of both worlds,” the leader of the Social Democrats, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, told a news conference about the deal between Kurz’s People’s Party (OVP) and the Greens. “It is far more an OVP manifesto with Green camouflage.”

Many Greens balked at the deal, which retained much of the hard line on immigration and “political Islam” seen under Kurz’s last coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party which collapsed in May.

It includes extending a ban on headscarves in schools until the age of 14 from around 10 currently, as well as preventive custody for people deemed a threat to public safety even if they have not yet committed a crime.

“It is painful for us that we could not prevail with what we would like to see here,” Greens negotiator Sigi Maurer told news channel Puls 24 in a discussion with OVP negotiator August Woeginger, adding that the Greens were still “the party of human rights”.

When asked what in the deal was painful for the OVP, Woeginger said each party had stuck to its issues.

On the environmental side, the deal includes measures such as increasing a tax on flights slightly and expanding the rail network. But the Greens’ flagship policy of overhauling taxation to price in carbon emissions was put off until at least 2022.

Greens leader Werner Kogler conceded on Thursday, as he and Kurz presented the deal, that the agreement reflected the power balance between the parties; his party won 13.9% of the vote in the Sept. 29 parliamentary election compared to the OVP’s 37.5%.

Greenpeace’s Austria chief Alexander Egit bemoaned the delay in the taxation overhaul.

“We don’t have two years. The path to achieving (emissions) targets is getting steeper each year,” he told ORF radio, while praising other parts of the deal.

Few expect Saturday’s meeting of the Greens’ Federal Congress to block the deal, but it could raise questions about whether the coalition can last.

Austria’s officially recognised body representing Muslims was also unusually critical.

“We would have expected of the Greens in government a course in line with human rights and the defence of equal treatment for all,” it said in a statement. “The indiscriminate use of the term ‘political Islam’ stigmatises and criminalises all Muslims living in Austria across the board.”

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Pravin Char