VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian conservative leader Sebastian Kurz triumphed in Sunday’s election as his People’s Party emerged well ahead with 37% of the vote, projections show, but he will need a coalition partner to control parliament.
Kurz, 33, has not ruled out any coalition partners and has said he will speak to all parties in parliament. President Alexander Van der Bellen, a former leader of the Greens who will oversee the process, is likely to formally task Kurz with forming a coalition later this week.
Typically the election winner sounds out all possible coalition partners before holding exclusive talks with one of them, as Kurz and his People’s Party (OVP) did in 2017 before allying with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).
The publication in May of a sting video showing FPO leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache offering to fix state contracts forced him to resign and blew up that coalition.
It is widely assumed that these coalition talks will take a relatively long time and could last until Christmas or later.
Kurz has not given a steer. While some commentators think it would make sense for him to join forces with the Greens and perhaps the liberal Neos, the Greens fear Kurz will use them as a stalking horse to then land up back in bed with the FPO.
Kurz he has several options to form a government, which break down as follows:
OVP-FPO (53% COMBINED)
The FPO repeatedly called for another coalition with Kurz during the campaign, but it backed away from the idea as the scale of its defeat became clear.
Its new leader Norbert Hofer now says it is “at least very unlikely”, without ruling it out altogether. He and others worry they would be negotiating from a position of weakness, having lost 10 percentage points since their last coalition with Kurz.
For Kurz, there are two problems with an OVP-FPO tie-up.
First, it could damage his image to resurrect what opposition parties have already called the “Ibiza coalition”, after the holiday island where the sting video of Strache was filmed. Kurz has emerged from the scandal relatively untarnished but will not want to revive memories of it.
Secondly, Kurz turned his back on the FPO after the scandal and in the process singled out FPO Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, whom he forced from office.
Kickl is a heavyweight within his party and now effectively its number 2. It is widely believed within Kurz’s party that he would undermine any coalition even if he was not a minister.
That is a big problem for Kurz, who has brought down two coalition governments since he took over as OVP leader in 2017. Failing to keep his next government intact for a full five-year mandate could prove fatal for him.
OVP-GREENS (51% COMBINED)
Kurz would have a slim majority with the left-wing Greens, whose share of the vote jumped to around 14% from less than 4% two years ago, when they crashed out of parliament.
Allying with them would spare Kurz the whiff of scandal that comes with the FPO, but the policy differences are much bigger, and for many Greens supporters working with Kurz is a bitter pill to swallow.
Kurz has offered little in the way of policies to tackle climate change, and often argued during the campaign that any such measures should not hurt regular voters, like drivers who might be hit by higher fuel costs.
The Greens’ proposed measures include ending subsidies for fossil fuels and overhauling taxation to make products with a large carbon footprint more expensive.
The Greens say they are prepared to talk to Kurz but they want him to show he is serious fast - apparently fearing that he could use initial talks with them as political cover for then turning to the far right.
Given how narrow his majority with the Greens would be, Kurz may prefer a three-way tie-up including the liberal, pro-business Neos to avoid being at the mercy of a handful of Greens lawmakers who could deny him a majority on any vote in parliament.
Each party’s exact number of seats will depend on the final count, which should be announced on Thursday.
The Neos have said they are prepared to negotiate with Kurz.
There is no love lost between Kurz and the Social Democrats’ leadership, which even took him to court and won when he suggested they had something to do with the Ibiza scandal without presenting any evidence.
A tie-up is mathematically possible but unlikely while SPO leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner is in office. She plans to stay on.
Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Giles Elgood