VIENNA – The leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) Sebastian Kurz, as widely expected, won reelection as Austria’s chancellor on Sunday by a margin that allows him to select his governing coalition partner from among several options, but it remains to be seen whether he will repeat his controversial pact with the ultrarightists, make a radical turn toward The Greens or resort to a coalition with the seemingly worn-out Social Democrats.
With 37.2 percent of the votes and 71 seats in Parliament, Kurz came out with an additional 5.6 percent of the votes and nine more lawmakers than in the snap elections called two years ago.
His recent administration, this time in coalition with the ultranationalists of the FPÖ, was brief – just 17 months plagued with assorted scandals among his partners and the rupture of the coalition along with a censure motion that brought down his government.
“In May, we were defeated and the people now once again have elected us,” the conservative 33-year-old leader proclaimed in his first remarks after the release of election results.
Kurz said he felt very impressed with the result. Although all the voter surveys had indicated he would win, the outcome – he admitted – was better than he had expected.
Kurz’s joy is inversely proportional to that of the ultranationalists. With 16 percent of the votes, the right-wing populist party Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) lost 21 of the 51 seats in Parliament that it had, a more precipitous plunge among voters than had been forecast.
The main question now will be whether Kurz will renew his coalition with the FPÖ, despite the latter’s corruption scandal that ended up bringing about the censure motion against the executive, thus bringing down the government.
In addition, every month there was a new xenophobic or racist comment by some member of the FPÖ, not to mention links established between FPÖ lawmakers and ultrarightist or neo-Nazi groups. Many Western secret services limited their cooperation with Austria due to a lack of confidence in its government institutions.
Kurz, however, tolerated everything, putting the coalition’s stability and “good work” first.
Then, in May a video taken with a hidden camera two years before was leaked showing then-head of the FPÖ and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache offering political favors to an alleged Russian businesswoman in exchange for money.
Strache, who is now being investigated for embezzlement, resigned and the coalition government toppled.
He was replaced by Norbert Hofer, who on Sunday acknowledged that the election result was worse than expected and does not bode well for the party’s hopes to once again enter a coalition with Kurz, although he added “We’re preparing to be in the opposition.”
Given the FPÖ history, Kurz may opt not to risk an alliance with the group, turning to The Greens, for instance, a socially progressive and ecologically-minded party, albeit with a set of middle-class voters.
Spurred by a growing concern with climate change, The Greens have gone from practically nowhere, politically, two years ago to garnering 14 percent of the votes and 25 seats in parliament, both of which would be enough to give a Kurz-Greens coalition a majority, although to strike a deal with them, Kurz would have to scale back his harsh policies on immigration, which were a big key to his victory two years ago in coalition with the FPÖ.
He would also have to adopt climate-friendly policies, although these would be difficult for conservative voters to accept, and the leader of The Greens, Werner Kogler, said Sunday he was skeptical about whether an agreement with the ÖVP could be reached and said Kurz would probably make a deal once again with the ultras.
Kurz’s third option would be to reactivate the grand coalition, which had dominated Austrian politics since 1945.
With 21.8 percent of the votes and 41 parliamentary seats, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) emerged from this election with the worst showing in their history and it appears quite unlikely that Kurz would be willing to finalize a pact with them.
Armin Thurnher, the founder and an analyst with the weekly Austrian news magazine Falter, told EFE that “There is a 50/50 possibility that there will be a coalition between the ÖVP and the FPÖ or between the ÖVP and the Greens.”