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Austria's Kurz starts talks to form new coalition government

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Austria's Kurz starts talks to form new coalition government
Head of People's Party (OeVP) Sebastian Kurz and head of Social Democrats (SPOe) Pamela Rendi-Wagner meet for exploratory talks to form a new government in Vienna, Austria October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger   -   Copyright  LEONHARD FOEGER(Reuters)
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VIENNA (Reuters) – Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz opened talks with potential coalition partners on Tuesday after his People’s Party (OVP) fell short of the majority needed to form a government in last month’s snap parliamentary election.

Kurz, 33, has not ruled out governing with any of the four other parties and kicked off what could be a protracted process by sounding out the second-placed Social Democrats (SPO) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which came in third.

On Wednesday, Kurz will meet the other two parties, the environmentalist Greens and the liberal Neos, as he tries to find a deal that would give him the extra 21 seats he needs for a majority in parliament.

Before meeting SPO leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner for an hour on Tuesday, Kurz told reporters his aim was to improve Austria’s political culture after a campaign full of mud-slinging and to explore ways for parties to cooperate in parliament.

“The most important goal of course is in the medium term to form a stable and durable government,” Kurz said.

The publication in May of a sting video showing FPO leader and then-Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache offering to fix state contracts forced him to resign and blew up the governing coalition of the far-right party and the OVP.

The FPO repeatedly called for another coalition with Kurz during the election campaign but it has backed away from the idea as the scale of its defeat at the ballot box became clear – even though its 31 seats would be enough for Kurz.

The FPO’s new leader Norbert Hofer says forming another OVP-FPO coalition is now “at least very unlikely”, without ruling it out altogether. He and others in the FPO worry they would be negotiating from a position of weakness.

Some commentators think it would make sense for Kurz to join forces with the resurgent Green party, which has 26 seats, and the Neos with 15 seats, but it will not be easy to bridge policy differences with the Greens, led by Werner Kogler.

Austrian President and former Greens leader Alexander van der Bellen has encouraged Kurz to put climate change atop the political agenda – especially as surveys show the environment is the top concern of Austrian voters.

But for now Kurz has focused on boosting a fragile economy, cutting taxes on workers and retirees, and fighting illegal migration – policies more in line with the FPO.

While Kurz could get a slim majority with the Greens, he may be wary of going with them alone because he would risk being at the mercy of a handful of its left-wing lawmakers – making the Neos an option for a three-way coalition.

The bad blood between the OVP and the SPO makes a coalition between the two biggest parties unlikely.

Far-right politician Strache has retreated from the political stage since the video scandal but revived speculation of a comeback at the head of a new movement by posting on Facebook that any party he led could easily win seats.

He posted the remark after FPO leaders decided not to award an open seat in parliament to his wife, animal rights activist Philippa Strache, who was on the party’s list of candidates.

(Reporting by Michael Shields and Kirsti Knolle; editing by David Clarke)

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