Austrians boost Kurz's conservatives, Greens in snap poll

Austrian ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is poised for a return to power, after his conservative People’s Party won a snap election Sunday that was called following the collapse of his government with the far-right Freedom Party in May.

Kurz’s party was expected to get 37.1% 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, 33, told cheering supporters after the election, even as he refrained from saying which party he would seek to form a new government with.

The environmentalist Greens are one possible option. The party, which failed to enter parliament two years ago, looked set for a big comeback and was projected to get 14% of the vote. Austrians, like voters elsewhere in Europe, have expressed increasing concern over the past year about climate change, the party’s core topic.

The far-right Freedom Party was forecast to lose almost 10 percentage points and come third with 16.1%, a sign that voters were punishing the party for a leaked video that showed its long-time leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, appearing to offer favors to a purported Russian investor. The center-left Social Democrats were projected to come second with 21.7%, a loss of over 5 percentage points compared with 2017.

The Alpine country of 8.8 million has been run by a non-partisan interim administration since June, after Kurz pulled the plug on his coalition with the Freedom Party over the Strache video. The footage, published by German news outlets Der Spiegel and Sueddeutsche Zeitung, showed Strache pandering to a woman claiming to be a Russian tycoon’s niece at a boozy gathering in Ibiza two years ago.

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

Speaking alongside other party leaders late Sunday, Kurz said his 17-month alliance with the Freedom Party had been “very good” until the Ibiza video was published and pledged to hold talks with all parties represented in parliament.

The Freedom Party, whose anti-migrant message failed to resonate so strongly with voters this time, indicated it would prefer a spell in opposition.

“A party needs to learn from the mistakes of the past and rebuild itself,” said the Freedom Party’s new leader, Norbert Hofer.

The Social Democrats, who have led many of post-World War II Austria’s governing coalitions, remain a possible junior partner, having failed to capitalize on the government’s collapse under leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner.

“It’s not what we hoped for. It’s not what we fought for,” she said after the party received its worst result since 1945.

Despite their political proximity, a coalition between Kurz’s party and the pro-business Neos appeared unlikely after the latter received just 7.8% of the vote.

Werner Kogler, heads of the Austrian Greens, acknowledged that his party benefited from the growing emphasis placed on fighting climate change, particularly among young voters.

“We want to be able to look them in the eyes,” he said when asked about the possibility of joining a future government.

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Frank Jordans contributed from Berlin.