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Conservatives surge in Austria as voters punish scandal-hit far-right party

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Image: Former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People's Party (OeV
Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People's Party talks on the phone before a television interview after elections on Sunday.   -   Copyright  Michael Gruber
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VIENNA — Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz basked in election victory on Monday, his People's Party strengthened by a parliamentary contest that punished the scandal-hit far right.

Tough talks lie ahead on forming a ruling coalition, however.

Sunday's vote followed the collapse in May of Kurz's coalition with the right-wing Freedom Party (FPO) after a video stingthat forced FPO Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache to step down.

Kurz, 33, emerged largely unscathed from the uproar, with the People's Party having its widest lead over the second-place Social Democrats in the post-war era. He now faces tortuous negotiations to choose one or two partners with which to govern.

His most likely coalition choices are to ally with the resurgent Greens.

But FPO leader Norbert Hofer called chances of a renewed alliance "very unlikely" given its poor showing on Sunday.

Austrian voters' top concern is the environment, surveys show, which helped lift the Greens to a record 14 percent of the vote from less than 4 percent in 2017, when they crashed out of Parliament.

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

Kurz is keeping his cards close to the chest, reiterating his mantra that he would talk to all other parties in parliament to seek a stable coalition.

In an interview with broadcaster ORF aired on Monday, he said his priorities included fostering economic growth at a time of trade and political jitters.

"We are just now seeing very negative economic developments in Germany, we have not solved Brexit, we have tensions in trade ties with the United States," he said.

"The challenge for us will be securing good economic growth in the future as well and doing our utmost to keep unemployment in Austria from rising again. This is going to be a challenging phase."