Austria far-right eyes power in 'whizz-kid' government
Austria's far-right looked set on Oct. 16 to return to power in a coalition with conservative "whizz-kid" Sebastian Kurz, the world's youngest leader-in-waiting, in a fresh triumph for European populists.
The expected rightward shift in the wealthy European Union member state will pose a fresh headache for Brussels as it struggles with Brexit and the rise of nationalists in Germany, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.
The People's Party (OeVP) -- rebooted by Kurz as a more hardline "movement" -- was projected to sweep up 31.7 percent of the vote on Oct. 15, with final results expected later this week.
In second place were the Social Democrats (SPOe) of incumbent Chancellor Christian Kern on 26.9 percent, closely followed by the eurosceptic Freedom Party (FPOe) on 26.0 percent.
Founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s, the FPOe's result is close to its all-time record of 26.8 percent in 1999 under then-leader Joerg Haider, and twice that of their allies the Alternative for Germany (AfD) last month.
Kurz, 31, forced the snap vote after becoming OeVP chief in May and ending the acrimonious decade-long coalition with the SPOe.
He attracted supporters in droves by depicting himself as a breath of fresh air, talking tough on immigration and vowing to slash taxes and red tape.
Given his open dislike for Kern and adoption of far-right themes, Kurz's most likely coalition partner is the populist FPOe of Heinz-Christian Strache, 48.
Media reports said the two parties were already engaged in intensive behind-the-scene negotiations.
The least likely possibility is a tie-up between the FPOe and the SPOe, whose campaign suffered a string of mishaps.
Kern warned on Oct. 16 that Austria had witnessed a "massive rightward shift.”
"We are open to talks... but there are enormous overlaps in the programmes of the OeVP and the FPOe," Kern told public radio Oe 1.
"We will not betray our programme and our fundamental values."
The OeVP and FPOe already shared power between 2000 and 2007, which turned Austria into a pariah.
But there would not be the same backlash now owing to what experts say is the "normalization" of Europe's far-right.
In December, the FPOe almost won the presidency and topped opinion polls in the midst of Europe's migrant crisis.
Like AfD, French National Front chief Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands -- who both congratulated Strache on Twitter on Oct. 15 -- the FPOe has stoked concerns about a record influx of migrants into Europe.
But then Kurz came along and with his radical OeVP makeover stole some of Strache's thunder.
As foreign minister,, the rosy-cheeked Kurz claims credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016 that saw hundreds of thousands of refugees trek into western Europe.
"I promise I will fight for great change in this country. It's time to establish a new political style" Kurz said Oct. 15.
Despite Kurz's pro-EU pledge, observers say a right-wing alliance risks driving a wedge between Austria and Brussels.
Vienna will hold the EU's presidency in the second half of 2018, just when Brussels wants to conclude Brexit talks.
Kurz has openly praised Hungary's populist premier Viktor Orban, while the FPOe is ambivalent at best about the EU.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto congratulated Kurz for the elections, welcoming his stance on migration as close to that of Budapest and calling him a personal friend.
“We are happy that a sister party of ours won the elections ... and we are happy that their candidate has won who in many cases represented similar positions regarding migration to the Hungarian government,” Szijjarto said on arriving for talks between European
Union foreign ministers, which Kurz would normally attend.
Szijjarto said he expected the anti-immigration eastern EU states - Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic - to work more closely with Austria now.