(Bloomberg) — Sebastian Kurz is on track to return as Austria’s chancellor after a historic election victory, but the road to a new government is fraught with hazards.
Austrian voters made his People’s Party and the Greens the clear winners in snap elections triggered by the collapse of his alliance with the nationalist Freedom Party. If the conservative and environmentalist groups can hash out a deal, a coalition would break new ground in Austria and send a signal across Europe.
“This is a great victory for Kurz, but it’s not making it any easier to form a government,” said Thomas Hofer, a political analyst in Vienna. “So much is standing in the way in terms of policy — especially when it comes to migration or social issues. And there is a lot of resistance at the Greens’ grassroots level.”
The People’s Party is projected to have won 37.1% of the vote, widening support for the second straight election, according to public broadcaster ORF. Amid surging concerns about global warming, the Greens tripled their share to 14%, making them a leading candidate in a governing coalition.
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen said he would ask Kurz to form a government after talking with all the leaders of the parliamentary parties. The 33-year-old deflected questions about a possible coalition, but showed little signs of wanting to compromise.
“Of course we want to implement our program,” Kurz said in a televised debate on Sunday. “You know my position on migration, you know my position on taxes, on reform projects that are necessary.”
The Green leader Werner Kogler, meanwhile, made it clear that he won’t easily bend to Kurz’s will.
“We’re not going to enter a coalition only to represent the policies” of the previous government with the anti-migration Freedom Party, Kogler said. “There will have to be some commonalities.”
The Freedom Party suffered the sharpest losses, dropping to 16.1% from 26%. The far-right group’s support suffered more than expected from the fallout of the so-called Ibiza affair — an undercover video that showed party officials currying favor with a fake Russian oligarch’s niece on the Spanish island. The group backed off its ambitions to revive its coalition with the People’s Party.
“We don’t interpret this as a mandate to continue this government,” Freedom Party General Secretary Harald Vilimsky told ORF. “The voters didn’t make us strong enough for that.”
With five diverse groups entering Austria’s parliament, the vote reflects the splintered state of European politics and the surging importance of environmental concerns. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU lost its lead over the country’s Greens in a recent nationwide poll. Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and the Fridays for Future demonstrations have increased the awareness of climate change. The Greens in Austria failed to enter parliament just two years ago. The liberal Neos also expanded their support.
Other cooperation options might be less appealing for Kurz. Joining up with the Social Democrats, the default partner for decades, would make a mockery of his promise of change. The Social Democrats, the biggest opposition group, got just 21.7% for their worst result in a national election since the alpine country was created in the aftermath of World War I.
Renewing his vows with the Freedom Party would mean relying on a volatile group that triggered the collapse of his last government and has suffered further damage to its reputation from the Ibiza scandal.
Kurz could potentially seek to rule in a minority government, a rarity in Austrian politics. There has been a minority government only once in Austria’s history. It lasted less than two years in the 1970s.
Talks to form a government have historically taken months in Austria. Given the complex starting point, there’s unlikely to be a quicker resolution this time. Until the new government is sworn in, caretaker Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein will remain in office.
Austria has been ruled by the interim government since Kurz lost a no-confidence vote in parliament. The collapse of the coalition triggered the snap ballot, with about 6.4 million Austrians called to elect a new national parliament. About 75% of voters turned out to cast their ballots.
(Adds comments from Kurz and the Green party leader)
–With assistance from Matthias Wabl and Jonathan Tirone.
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