Austria's conservatives show few qualms about teaming up with far right

VIENNA (Reuters) - With conservative leader Sebastian Kurz winning Austria’s parliamentary elections on Sunday with around 32 percent of votes, many of his supporters see little reason to shy away from forming a government with the far right Freedom Party (FPO).

Top candidate of the People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz attends his party's victory celebration meeting in Vienna, Austria, October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Amid servings of sausages, beer and white wine spritzer, Kurz’s acolytes at the People’s Party (OVP) election celebrations sounded enthusiastic about working with the anti-immigration Freedom Party, which got around 26 percent, within a whisker of the Social Democrats.

“OVP-FPO is better than anything else, even if it’s not perfect,” said Kurz fan Florian Zierler, a 21-year-old software developer. Kurz said he would talk to everyone.

Freedom Party chief Heinz-Christian Strache is now as close as he has ever been to joining the national government. He has accused Kurz of stealing his policies ranging from tough anti-immigration policies to tax cuts for companies and reduced social services for refugees.

“The economic program of the FPO is similar to that of the OVP but they (FPO) are still hammering foreigners hard in their statements and that’s not in order,” Zierler said.

Meanwhile at Freedom Party celebrations, its general secretary and strategist Herbert Kickl, 48, said the ball was now in the court of the conservatives and Social Democrats, sounding a confident note after one of the best election results for his party in its 60-year history.

“For us it’s not crucial whether we’ll go into opposition or into government. The main factor for us is the position from which we can achieve the change that’s needed.”

Freedom Party supporter Andreas Weiss, enjoying a smoke-filled party looking out over Vienna with the parliament building in the foreground, echoed Kickl.

“It actually doesn’t matter who will be our coalition partner. Our demands must be realized,” he said.

Five women in their 40s, dancing and singing at the FPO party, said they had no doubt their party would enter government with the OVP.

According to pollster SORA the biggest chunk of OVP voters, 40 percent, also want the FPO in government. Among FPO supporters, 60 percent want the OVP as a partner.


Centrist coalitions between the Social Democrats and the conservatives have dominated Austrian politics since World War Two, but many are deeply frustrated with the lack of progress in tax, pension, education and administrative reform.

“The reds (the Social Democrats) are so fossilized and encrusted,” said 79-year-old Heinrich Kohlmann, attending Kurz’s party clad in traditional Austrian costume and clutching two glasses of beer. For him, the Freedom Party is the better partner for the changes he wants.

“I hope that we can reduce the strength and power of Brussels,” Kohlmann said. Both Kurz and Strache have called for a slimmed-down European Union and a return of many powers to national governments.

For the Freedom Party, forming a coalition with the conservatives would be a milestone in Europe where its sister parties, Germany’s AfD and France’s National Front, can only dream of joining the cabinet.

When the Freedom Party last entered government in 2000, also with the conservatives, the EU imposed sanctions on Austria.

“I hope that many (in the European parliament) will understand that the topics we are running with have strong support among the population,” said Harald Vilimsky, the FPO’s most prominent EU parliamentarian.

But even for Kurz supporters like Florian Kahl who are concerned by the Freedom Party’s euroscepticism - which it has toned down since making it into the runoff of last year’s presidential vote - the far right is still the best partner.

“I think (an OVP-FPO) government would mean the most positive change for Austria,” said the 36-year-old civil servant.

Amid a crowd dominated by men in suits and slicked back hair and women wearing designer handbags and jewelry in turquoise - the color Kurz chose for his campaign - Pavlina Hristova, a 55-year old launderette worker with broken German seemed ill at ease.

But she shared the same views as other Kurz supporters.

“It’s scarcely possible now (to work with the Social Democrats). It would probably work with the FPO.”

additional reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Richard Balmforth