Austria's Kurz set to return to power and look left after Ibiza scandal

Austria's Kurz set to return to power and look left after Ibiza scandal
Persons pass election campaign posters of the head of Austria's Peoples Party (OeVP) former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Social Democrats (SPOe) party leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner in Vienna, Austria September 23, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger Copyright LEONHARD FOEGER(Reuters)
By Reuters
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By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) - Young Austrian conservative Sebastian Kurz is cruising to victory in Sunday's parliamentary election, but after a video sting blew up his coalition with the far right, he could well reach to the other end of the spectrum for a partner this time.

Former far-right leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache quit in May over the video of him in Ibiza with a woman posing as a Russian oligarch's niece, apparently offering to fix state contracts and explaining how to dodge party financing laws.

The coalition government led by Kurz and Strache - the only one in western Europe to include the far right when it was formed in 2017 - collapsed soon afterwards and a general election was called with the date set for Sept. 29.

Who was behind the video remains unclear but the episode touched off concerns about widespread corruption and remains politically toxic. Kurz, 33, has emerged largely unscathed, leaving him the runaway favourite to become chancellor again.

His People's Party (OVP) is so far ahead in the polls, with around 34% of potential votes, that arguably the top issue in the campaign has been whom it will govern with, since it will need a partner to secure a majority in parliament.

"Without us Kurz will tilt to the LEFT," one Freedom Party (FPO) campaign poster says. Another makes the threat clearer, using traditional party colours, with Kurz's being black: "Black-green threatens YOUR future."

The FPO is so keen to govern with Kurz again that a campaign video shows its new leader Norbert Hofer in couples' therapy with Kurz, both saying in unison: "We have many ideas in common". And that is true, including their shared hard line on immigration after the 2015 migration crisis.

"Disappointed FPO voters are primarily swinging to the OVP," political analyst Peter Filzmaier said, explaining that the FPO's six-point drop since the last election has benefited Kurz's party. "If I have voted for the right-wing FPO and I am outraged by Ibiza, where else should I go?"

Rekindling their relationship would be easy for Kurz, and with FPO support around 20%, they would have a majority. But that option, already dubbed the "Ibiza coalition" by Kurz's critics, previously came with a series of FPO anti-Semitism scandals, and is not the most popular with Kurz's fans.

"I'm not so sure about the blues (FPO), because there are so many browns (Nazis) among them," Marianne Krestenberger, 63, told Reuters at a Kurz rally on Thursday in Baden, a wealthy suburb of Vienna.


And there is a new alternative - the resurgent Greens, who are polling around 13%, buoyed by the fact the environment has shot to the top of Austrians' concerns.

But with that party on the left of the political spectrum, it could be a hard deal to strike, and for both to sell to their bases even though they govern together in some provinces. To complicate matters further, they would likely bring in the liberal Neos party to give them a stable majority.

Allying with the Social Democrats (SPO), the party with which the OVP shared power for decades, is mathematically possible but unlikely as there is no love lost between Kurz and the SPO leadership.

"He basically has the choice between plague, cholera and maybe also Ebola," political analyst Thomas Hofer said of Kurz's options.

A three-way tie-up with the Greens and Neos would at least be a first, since neither has been in national government before. That would fit with Kurz's self-branding as a moderniser, despite much of his agenda being conservative orthodoxy.


For the Neos, who are polling around 8%, there is common ground with Kurz on business-friendly policies. Like the Greens, however, they want to overhaul fiscal policy to tackle climate change, and the Greens have little in common with Kurz on many issues, including immigration and social policy.

"It is a difficult and very risky option," Hofer said, pointing to the need for the smaller parties to show concrete results as junior partners, and the fragility of a three-way tie-up.

The Greens have not ruled out a coalition with Kurz. But neither side will be drawn further for now.

"We are not speculating about ministries or coalitions," Kurz told Reuters at his rally.


(Additional reporting by Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich, Leonhard Foeger and Matteo Witt; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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