VIENNA Austria's conservatives, the People's Party (OVP), shot to the top of opinion polls on Friday, pushing past the main far-right and centre-left movements after naming a new leader with his own tough line on immigration.
The far-right Freedom Party (FPO) fell from first to second place with 26 percent in two surveys - a share of the vote that could still make it a powerful player and possible coalition partner after snap elections due in October.
Any return of the Freedom Party to coalition government, just months after its candidate's narrow defeat in presidential elections, would mark a boost for Europe's populist causes, which have faced reversals in elections in France and the Netherlands.
Friday's surveys were the first published since the conservatives chose Sebastian Kurz, who has said he opposes what he calls the "welcoming culture" towards migrants in neighbouring Germany.
As foreign minister in the current coalition, he helped coordinate the closure of a major migrant route across the Balkans, a popular move among many Austrians.
Soon after his nomination on Sunday, Kurz blew the coalition with the centre-left SPO apart by demanding elections.
Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache said he could now expect the support of a quarter of the electorate - "25 percent at least should be possible," he told News magazine in an interview published on Friday.
Asked whether the FPO would prefer to help the OVP or the centre-left Social Democrats into government, Strache said his party was "equidistant" to both.
Austria's coalition of the centre-right OVP and centre-left SPO, both of which have dominated politics since World War II, agreed on fresh elections last week.
Their members have spent much of the time since then trading accusations over business and education reforms, a standoff seen limiting the chances of another centrist coalition.
In a poll published in tabloid Oesterreich on Friday, the Conservatives got 35 percent, the FPO 26 percent and the SPO 20 percent. The margin of error was 4 percent among 600 participants, according to election information portal Neuwal.
In the Unique poll of 800 people, the OVP got 33 percent and SPO and FPO 26 percent each. Before Kurz became its leader, the OVP had occupied third place for months.
"The OVP with Sebastian Kurz has a very good starting position," said Unique.
"It remains to be seen whether he can keep those throughout the campaign, which is expected to include significantly more attacks on his person."
The Social Democrats ruled with the FPO from 1983 to 1987 in a centre-left, far-right government, which would be unthinkable elsewhere in Europe.
In 2000, the OVP and FPO agreed on a government headed by the OVP's Wolfgang Schuessel, which led to a six-month diplomatic boycott of Austria by other European Union member states.
(Reporting by Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Andrew Heavens)