Austrian conservatives start coalition talks with far-right populists

Sebastian Kurz hoping for a swift agreement on a programme for government

Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old leader of the Austrian People’s Party, is likely to be the next chancellor. Photograph: EPA/Christian Bruna

Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old leader of the Austrian People’s Party, is likely to be the next chancellor. Photograph: EPA/Christian Bruna

 

Austria’s conservative leader Sebastian Kurz opened coalition talks on Wednesday with the far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) with a view to swift agreement on a programme for government.

Mr Kurz (31) won the federal election 10 days ago when his People’s Party (ÖVP) took 31.5 per cent of the vote. The FPÖ finished third and Wednesday’s first round of talks in Vienna opens the door to a return of a two-party alliance that sparked EU sanctions in 2000.

“From my perspective it was a very positive meeting in a positive atmosphere,” said Mr Kurz, the chancellor in waiting.

The former foreign minister is leader of a party which has been in power for all but 17 years of the post-war era. Its campaign presented him as a fresh-faced political outsider and his establishment party as a new “movement”.

After years on the front lines of the refugee crisis, and an Austrian election campaign dominated by immigration, critics accused Mr Kurz and his allies of stealing the populist clothes of the FPÖ and adding a little rhetorical fabric softener.

First round

In recent months the FPÖ slipped form first to third place in polls, and on election night. But after more than a decade in opposition, the far-right party is determined to enter office.

Karl-Heinz Strache, FPÖ leader, said he was already on first-name “Du” terms with Mr Kurz, whom he described as a “decent person” determined to push through “sustainable, better” reform in Austria.

But Mr Strache, who hopes to be next interior minister, insisted “no one should think we will make life easy” for the young chancellor-in-waiting.

After a decade heading the ruling coalition in Vienna, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) are resigned to opposition but have floated the idea of supporting a minority Kurz government, which the ÖVP leader has welcomed as a “good plan B”.

Mr Kurz has insisted that a precondition of any government he heads is a “clear pro-European orientation”, throwing down the gauntlet early on to the eurosceptic populists in the FPÖ.

Immigration and border controls

Political analysts see considerable overlap between the two right-wing parties, particularly in the crucial issue of immigration, border controls and related policy areas from law and order to welfare for non-Austrian citizens. The Austrian economy is also recovering, handing the new government a solid financial foundation.

“They share common ground on pushing back the state and less bureaucracy in favour of the free market,” said Prof Peter Filzmaier, political scientist at the Danube University in Krems. “But eventually they will reach a situation about what they can afford, and there they are in competition.”

He predicts that money will remain a sticking point when demands for the FPÖ, popular among lower-earners, for a minimum wage come up against the ÖVP tax relief promises to its middle-class and business voters.

The political scientist also predicts tensions over formulating a pro-European statement of commitment that meets muster in both parties.

While Mr Kurz has insisted he wants to form a stable coalition, he knows the stability risks that come with any coalition with the FPÖ. Formed in 1956 by ex-Nazis, its previous coalition terms have always ended with splits or inner-party revolts.

“In all three conflicts the central actor was (the late) Jörg Haider,” tweeted Austrian news anchor Armin Wolf. “It’ll be interested to see how things develop without him.”

The FPÖ has attempted to soften its image in recent years and its candidate won the first round of the country’s last presidential election.