Austria's Sebastian Kurz wins election, projections show

The People's Party leader was expected to come out on top but faces difficulties forming a coalition.

    Sebastian Kurz gives a speech after the first exit polls in Vienna on Sunday [Georg Hockmuth/AFP]
    Sebastian Kurz gives a speech after the first exit polls in Vienna on Sunday [Georg Hockmuth/AFP]

    Austrian conservatives won most seats in snap elections on Sunday, putting their leader Sebastian Kurz on track to retake power but forcing him into tough coalition negotiations after a corruption scandal sent his far-right former allies tumbling.

    Kurz's party was expected to get 37.1 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections, a gain of 5.7 percentage points compared with 2017, according to projections released by public broadcaster ORF.

    "Today, the people have voted us back in again," Kurz told cheering supporters after the election, though he refrained from saying which party he would seek to form a new government with.

    Kurz's People's Party was well ahead of the Social Democrats at 21.7 percent, the far-right Freedom Party on 16.7 percent, the Greens on 14 percent, and the liberal Neos 7.8 percent.

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

    Kurz, 33, has emerged largely unscathed from the scandal, even gaining voters from the FPO whose support has slipped to roughly one-fifth of the electorate from just over one-quarter in the last vote in 2017.

    About 6.4 million Austrians aged 16 and older were eligible to vote. The turnout was 75.5 percent.

    On the left, there has been some shift in support from the Social Democrats to the resurgent Greens.

    The Greens leader said his party would only consider governing with Kurz if there was a "radical change" of direction compared to his previous coalition with the far-right.

    "There must be a radical change from the policies," Werner Kogler told Austrian television. "We need a sign of an about-turn".

    It could take time for the Greens and Kurz to convince their supporters about working with each other.

    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.

    The Freedom Party, whose anti-migrant message failed to resonate so strongly with voters this time, indicated it would prefer a spell in opposition after the scandal-hit party dropped 10 percent in Sunday's elections.

    FPOe leader Norbert Hofer told Austria media he believed the result meant the party would not take part in coalition talks, adding: "That means we are preparing for opposition... A party needs to learn from the mistakes of the past and rebuild itself." 

    Willing to talk

    Al Jazeera's Dominic Kane, reporting from Vienna, said Austria was one of the first Western European countries where a far-right party got into government.

    "At the turn of the century, the Freedom Party under different leadership entered government and now they have been in government a second time," he said.

    Kurz has said he will talk to all parties. His two most likely options are either to ally with the FPO again or with the Greens and the pro-business Neos.

    A centrist coalition with the Social Democrats is possible but unlikely under their current leadership.

    Austria Social Democrats
    The Social Democrats, led by Pamela Rendi-Wagner, were expected to come second in the polls [Alex Halada/AFP]

    Surveys suggested the environment is voters' top concern, which has helped the Greens surge from less than four percent in the last election, when they crashed out of parliament, to a projected 13 percent now.

    As the campaign wound up last week, the FPO sought to focus voters' attention on its core issue of migration, railing against immigrants in general and Muslims in particular, rather than addressing recent scandals that have eroded its support.

    The widespread assumption among politicians and analysts is the election will be followed by a long period of coalition talks, meaning the current provisional government of civil servants led by former judge Brigitte Bierlein could remain in place until late December or later.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies