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Go right or go left: Kurz expected to win again in Austrian elections, but who’ll play partner?

Go right or go left: Kurz expected to win again in Austrian elections, but who’ll play partner?
Four months after his coalition government was brought down by a corruption scandal, former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz looks set to make a resurgence, as the country prepares to vote.

Austrians head to the polls on Sunday in an election that nobody would have anticipated five months ago. Kurz’ government collapsed in May, after German media published a video showing Freedom Party (FPO) leader Heinz-Christian Strache negotiating a quid-pro-quo deal with the supposed niece of a Russian oligarch (who turned out to be an actor) in Ibiza in 2017. Strache’s FPO was the minority partner in a coalition with Kurz’ Austrian People’s Party (OVP), and though Kurz distanced himself from the affair, a motion of no confidence saw the government liquidated and a caretaker administration installed.

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According to opinion polls, the scandal seems to have left Kurz relatively unscathed. Riding to power in 2017 on a platform of tougher immigration laws, Kurz’s message still clearly resonates with voters. The party was slated to take 34 percent of the vote on Sunday, up from the 31.5 percent it won in 2017.

The OVP’s opposition, the left-wing Social Democrats (SPO) have not managed to parlay the collapse of Kurz’ government into votes, at least if the polls are to be believed. Although the party has sniped at the OVP/FPO coalition’s ‘hardline’ immigration policies for two years, the SPO was projected to take 22 percent of the vote, down from 26.9 percent in 2017.

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Even the FPO, at the center of the scandal, was projected to come in third place with 20 percent, down six points from 2017, while the Green Party has more than tripled its share of the vote from 3.8 percent to 12.

As Austria’s government dissolved in May, some analysts predicted that Kurz would rise again, and their predictions were not without precedent.

In 2000, then-OVP leader Wolfgang Schussel became chancellor despite coming in third place in a general election a year before. Schussel entered into a coalition with the FPO, who had won more votes. After a schism within the FPO led to the resignation of several key ministers in 2002, snap elections were called and Schussel’s OVP won 40 percent of the vote before re-entering a coalition with a dramatically weakened Freedom Party.

Right-wing voters who felt let down by the FPO turned to the OVP, a situation that seems to be repeating itself this time around. 

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Assuming Kurz comes out on top this weekend, the 33-year-old will still need to pick a coalition partner. Political rivalry and ideological differences mean the Social Democrats are out of the question, even though such ‘grand coalitions’ have often been formed since the end of World War II. A renewed coalition with the Freedom Party would be convenient, save for the fact that Kurz might wish to maintain his distance following the ‘Ibizagate’ scandal. A third option for the likely chancellor would involve recruiting the Greens and a smattering of minor players, possibly promising to enact some environmentally friendly policies in exchange for their support on immigration.

With climate change a dominant global issue, such an alliance might benefit both Kurz and the Greens. The FPO is aware of this, and has sought to portray itself as the only option for Kurz. “Without us, Kurz will tilt to the LEFT” warns one campaign poster, while another uses party colors to warn voters “Black-Green threatens YOUR future.” 

An FPO campaign video features new party leader Norbert Hofer in couple’s counselling with Kurz, with both leaders saying “we have many ideas in common.”

With even rival parties publicly anticipating a Kurz victory, the real battle will likely take place long after Sunday, when the bargaining, bartering and dealmaking business of forming a government kicks off.

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