September 28, 2019 / 10:13 PM / 3 months ago

Election triumph hands Austria's Kurz range of coalition options

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz triumphed in Sunday’s parliamentary election while the scandal-tainted far right took a beating and the Greens surged, leaving Kurz the option of forming a coalition with either of them.

The election followed the collapse in May of Kurz’s coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) after a video sting scandal that forced FPO Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache to step down.

Kurz, 33, emerged largely unscathed from the scandal, even siphoning off voters from the FPO as further allegations surfaced last week over lavish and possibly fraudulent expenses Strache claimed from the party. Strache denies wrongdoing.

As suggested by opinion polls for months, Kurz’s People’s Party (OVP) came a comfortable first, with 37.1% of the vote, according to a projection by pollster SORA for national broadcaster ORF based on a count of all but postal ballots.

“It was a difficult four months and now the population has voted us back in,” Kurz told his supporters, without indicating what his coalition preference might be.

Kurz said he will initially hold talks with all parties in parliament and has not ruled out any options.

His two most likely coalition choices are to ally with the FPO again or with the Greens, possibly in a three-way tie-up with the liberal Neos. A centrist coalition with the Social Democrats is mathematically possible but unlikely under their current leadership.

The SORA projection showed the Social Democrats coming second with 21.7%, their worst result since World War Two but still well ahead of the FPO on 16.1% and the resurgent Greens on a record 14.0%. The projection had a margin of error of 0.7 percentage point.

“The ball is in Sebastian Kurz’s court now,” the left-wing Greens’ campaign manager Thimo Fiesel told ORF when asked about a coalition with Kurz. “There is still a majority (for Kurz’s OVP) with the FPO.”

Top candidate of Peoples Party (OeVP) and former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz gestures next to Freedom Party (FPOe) top candidate Norbert Hofer and Austria's NEOS Party top candidate Beate Meinl-Reisinger during a TV discussion after the announcement of Austria's snap parliamentary election at the Hofburg palace in Vienna, Austria September 29, 2019. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

While the FPO even issued campaign videos appealing to Kurz to revive their coalition, they were far less keen on Sunday after their share of the vote collapsed by around 10 points compared with the last election in 2017.

“It is at least very unlikely,” FPO leader Norbert Hofer told ORF when asked if the party would go into government with Kurz, adding that with far fewer votes than two years ago FPO would be seriously weakened in any coalition talks.

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Austrian voters’ top concern is the environment, surveys show, which helped lift the Greens from less than 4% of the vote in 2017, when they crashed out of parliament.

While the Greens could give Kurz a narrow majority, his party is wary of being at the mercy of a handful of its left-wing lawmakers. If he does ally with the Greens he might therefore seek a three-way deal including the liberal, pro-business Neos, who are on 7.8%.

It could take time for the Greens and Kurz to convince their supporters about working together. Many Greens voters see Kurz as their enemy since he brought the far-right to power. Many of Kurz’s core voters, such as farmers and big business, are wary of the left-wing Greens.

“I’ve always had the impression that Mr Kurz continues to fancy turquoise-blue,” Greens leader Werner Kogler told ORF, referring to an OVP-FPO tie-up. “He was praising its policies up until yesterday ... We’ll see if they think again.”

Kogler has said he is prepared to hold exploratory talks but only if Kurz shows quickly that he is serious.

A tie-up with the Greens would at least spare Kurz the whiff of scandal that could accompany the FPO.

Slideshow (15 Images)

Asked whom he should work with, Kurz supporter Jutta Hummel, 58, said at his election party: “Surely not the Freedom Party. That was a complete flop before.”

Another, Paul Widmann, was less keen on the Greens, saying: “They make politics for people living in cities, not in rural areas where they need a car.”

Many politicians and analysts expect a long period of coalition talks that could leave the current provisional government of civil servants led by former judge Brigitte Bierlein in place until Christmas or later.

Writing by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by David Goodman/ Gareth Jones/Susan Fenton

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