Austria: Who will Sebastian Kurz choose as coalition partner?

Austria: Who will Sebastian Kurz choose as coalition partner?

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As expected, Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz triumphed in Sunday’s parliamentary election: his People’s Party (OVP) ranked first with 37.2% of the vote, according to a projection by pollster SORA published soon after voting ended.

There is no doubt that Sebastian Kurz, 33, will be the next Austrian Chancellor, but he will need a coalition partner to form a stable government. Now comes the time of coalition talks, as Kurz must choose which party will govern with the OVP.

Kurz’s former coalition partner, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), struggled at the polls, ranking third with 16.0% as the Social Democrats came second with 22.0%. The Greens made great progress, jumping from 4% at the last election to 14.3%.

Kurz is the “superstar” of the evening, Stefan Brocza, an expert on Austria and European law, told Euronews. But he now faces a bigger challenge: picking the right coalition partner.

Resuming the ‘marriage’ with the far-right FPO

The Freedom party is in trouble: on top of having lost 10 points at the polls, Kurz’ former coalition partner is also divided internally due to a scandal involving a video of its former leader Heinz-Christian Strache, which ultimately toppled the coalition government.

The new FPO leader, Nobert Hofer, said before the vote that he would like to resume the ‘marriage’ with Kurz’s People’s Party, but this seems compromised now.

The Freedom Party is the “biggest loser of the night”, Richard Luther, a professor of comparative politics at Keele University, told Euronews. For this reason, the choice of “continuity with the FPO is risky”, he said.

In terms of policy, it would allow Kurz to keep pursuing similar policies than the ones his coalition government set before the snap election, on a populist, anti-immigration stance. The FPO has been weakened by the poll, which would also give Kurz the opportunity to hold a stronger hand in the coalition by granting them less, or lesser, ministries, Luther said.

But for the same reason, its strong losses have “delegitimised” the FPO — and the recent scandals did not help, which could pose risks for Kurz, Luther added.

Innovating with the Greens

Kurz’s other option is to go into a coalition with the Greens. This is what Luther calls the choice of “innovation”, which would send the message that Kurz’s party is ready to bring change: a coalition with the Greens would be new at the national level.

Greens-Conservatives coalitions have already happened in Austria on local levels, Brocza said, for instance in Tyrol. “The Conservatives in these parts of Austria tend to be more liberal Conservatives”, he observed.

Policy-wise, however, choosing the Greens would be a challenge for Kurz, who would have to compose with their pro-EU stance and “attenuate his anti-immigration rhetoric”, Luther said.

The Greens, who were ultimately rejected by the Conservatives for a coalition at the last election, might also need to be persuaded, he added. The possibility of entering a coalition with the Conservatives could be divisive within the Green party, Brocza added: “They are split internally between Greens moderates, and others who are more left-wing.”

Months of negotiations ahead

It’s “difficult to tell” who Kurz will ultimately choose, Luthe said, but he thinks that the Greens option is “stronger”: “Office allows for compromise.”

With his party as much as 15% ahead of all others, there is the risk that Kurz feels he can ask “too much” of his coalition partner, Brocza said. “Out of these results, he is indisputably the boss”, he said, but Kurz will have to navigate the talks without “acting like he’s strong enough to take too much away from them” – at the risk of convincing neither.

“There will be a lot of discussion and drama in the next weeks”, Brocza noted. As postal votes are not all counted yet, the definitive results will not be known until next week, he said. Parties will hold internal talks before the real discussions begin in the next weeks.

Then, “if negotiations go fast”, the next government may be known by Christmas. Otherwise, he said, “it will be in the New Year”. Brocza concluded, with a laugh: “It takes the time it takes!”__EuroNews

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