September 27, 2019 / 10:00 PM / 24 days ago

Austrian election winds up as favorite Kurz keeps coalition options open

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian political parties began winding up their campaigns on Friday, two days before a parliamentary election Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives are tipped to win, as the left-wing Greens and far right warned he could pick the other side as partner.

Head of Austria's Peoples Party and former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks at the final election rally ahead of Austria's parliamentary election, in Vienna, Austria, September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Sunday’s vote is being held in the wake of a video sting scandal in May that felled far-right leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and blew up his coalition with Kurz’s party.

Kurz has emerged largely unscathed and polls suggest his conservatives have even siphoned off voters from the far right.

He will, however, again need a partner to gain a majority in parliament. His most likely choices are a three-way coalition with the Greens and the liberal, pro-business Neos, or reviving his coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

“Every vote for the FPO prevents black-green,” FPO leader Norbert Hofer told his party’s closing rally in a traditionally working-class district of Vienna, referring to a tie-up between Kurz’s People’s Party (OVP) and the Greens.

FPO has slid to around 20% from 26% in the last election in 2017 in the wake of the scandal. The OVP’s has risen to around 34% from 31.5%.

The FPO has sought to confine the scandal’s fallout largely to Strache, who offered in the sting video to fix government contracts at a dinner party on the holiday island of Ibiza with a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece, but a new potential scandal emerged this week.

Prosecutors said on Thursday they are investigating Strache, one of his former bodyguards and the former head of his office on suspicion of fraud.

The prosecutors’ announcement followed media reports that the FPO funded a lavish lifestyle for Strache and his wife, who is an FPO candidate in this election.

“FLYING CARPET”

The FPO has doubled down on its anti-immigrant rhetoric, apparently hoping to shift the focus onto one of its core issues even though that has moved down the list of voters’ concerns as Europe’s migration crisis has eased.

“Islam is a system ... of subjugation and intolerance,” Hofer told the rally. Austria has around 700,000 Muslims, roughly 8 percent of its population of just under 9 million.

FPO hardliner and former Interior Minister Herbert Kickl said other parties had “rolled out the carpet for Islam”, adding: “When I am interior minister we will start pulling the carpet in, dear friends, bit by bit, centimeter by centimeter, and we will turn the carpet into a flying carpet.”

The Greens, whose support has surged to roughly 13 percent from less than 4 percent two years ago as concerns about the environment have grown, warned the FPO could return to power.

“Should there again be a government of this persuasion, corruption and right-wing extremism, or with it at least? We say no,” Greens leader Werner Kogler told his party’s closing rally.

Slideshow (4 Images)

Kurz has, however, declined to be drawn on his preference.

In a debate on Thursday evening, Neos leader Beate Meinl-Reisinger asked him why he would not rule out a coalition with the FPO, which she said is not fit to govern.

“We as a People’s Party traditionally never rule out a democratically elected party. We will also not do that this time. If I am elected, we will hold talks with all parties,” he replied.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Sandra Maler

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