VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrians elect a new parliament on Sunday in a test of whether a young conservative star has succeeded in halting the resurgence of the far-right Freedom Party after a campaign in which immigration has been the dominant issue.
Many voters feel the country was overrun in Europe’s migration crisis in 2015, when it took in about 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers.
By taking a hard line that has left little daylight between him and the Freedom Party (FPO), Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, 31 has dislodged it from first place in opinion polls and he is the favorite to become Austria’s next leader.
Polls show the FPO in a close race for second place with the Social Democrats, who Kurz and his party have been at loggerheads with in the current coalition government.
That gives the FPO, which currently has a fifth of seats in parliament and is in government in two of Austria’s nine provinces, a good chance of entering a national coalition.
“It’s still not certain that he (Kurz) will win with this (strategy). In my view first place is still open. We’ll have to see what the last-minute movements are,” said Christoph Hofinger, a political analyst and pollster who puts together the most-watched projection on election night.
“It could be that in the end, and this has been a theory of mine for a long time, it also serves the FPO that their issues and their views on these issues are firmly at the center of the campaign.”
The Freedom Party has good chance of entering government for the first time since it became a junior partner to the People’s Party (OVP) in 2000, when it was led by the late Joerg Haider, who praised Hitler’s employment policies.
That prompted sanctions from the rest of the European Union and a wave of street protests.
More than 15 years later, few expect a similar uproar if the FPO did enter government, partly given the rise of similar movements in countries such as France and Germany.
Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPO wants to shut certain sectors of the economy to non-EU workers, limit the proportion of foreign pupils per classroom and deport foreign convicts to their home countries.
Kurz, who triggered the snap election by calling an end to the coalition with the Social Democrats, has also frequently returned to the theme of immigration, pledging to avoid a repeat of 2015, when Austria and Germany threw open their borders to a wave of refugees and other migrants.
He wants to cap benefits for refugees at well below the standard level.
Opinion polls have been remarkably similar for months, showing Kurz’s People’s Party in first place on around a third of the vote, with the FPO and Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats competing for second on around a quarter of the vote. The FPO secured 20.5 percent in the last vote in 2013.
Pollsters have said more than 10 percent of voters are likely to remain undecided until the last moment. A poll last weekend put the proportion of undecided voters at 27 percent.
Social Democrats’ campaign was already struggling to hit its stride when it became embroiled in a smear scandal. The party chairman stepped down two weeks ago, saying that, without his knowledge, the party had been involved in anti-Kurz websites.
Despite that setback, poll ratings have barely moved, raising questions about the extent to which the scandal was felt outside the political bubble in Vienna.
The SPO has also accused a member of Kurz’s staff of trying to bribe a member of its campaign team, and both sides are taking legal action against each other.
That could play into the hands of the FPO, which denounces the near-duopoly those parties have enjoyed - they have governed together for 44 of the past 72 years, and one or other alone for another 17 years.
In the final election debate between the heads of all five current parliamentary parties on Thursday night, the candidates stuck to their core issues.
Kern said reaching full employment as his top priority. He has focused his campaign on economic growth, jobs and social justice, seeking to capitalize on an economic recovery that has put the country on track for its fastest growth in six years.
Strache chose stopping immigration itself as his top issue, and Kurz picked what he says is a related topic -- protecting the welfare state.
Kern and Strache were due to hold their closing rallies on Friday afternoon. Kurz made only brief remarks to campaign workers on Friday.
(For a graphic on Austrian parliamentary election, click tmsnrt.rs/2hKIi65)
Additional reporting by Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Alison Williams