VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria voted on yesterday in a parliamentary election expected to see 31-year-old conservative Sebastian Kurz become chancellor on a pledge to take a hard line on refugees and prevent a repeat of Europe’s migration crisis.
Foreign Minister Kurz propelled his People’s Party (OVP) to the top of opinion polls when he became leader in May, dislodging the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) that had held first place for more than a year. If Mr Kurz’s OVP wins, the FPO would still have a good chance of entering government for the first time in more than a decade.
The winner will probably need a coalition to govern and the FPO could be kingmaker because the OVP and their current coalition partner, the Social Democrats, are at loggerheads.
Austria, a wealthy country of 8.7 million people, was a gateway into Germany for more than 1 million people during the migration crisis that began in 2015. Many of them were fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Austria took in about 1 percent of its population in asylum seekers in 2015, one of the highest proportions on the continent. Many voters say the country was overrun.
“Immigration policy, which Mr Kurz talked about so often, was decisive,” 58-year-old Kurz supporter Ingrid Regina said outside a polling station in Vienna. “I expect things to improve and order to return.”
The inflow of migrants buoyed the FPO and similar anti-immigration parties across Europe.
“I am hoping for a good result with a greater vote of confidence,” FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache said at a polling station in Vienna. “If we reach 25 percent that would be good, a great success, but perhaps even more is possible.”
Mr Kurz says he will shut the main migrant routes into Europe through the Balkans and across the Mediterranean. He and the FPO have kept immigration at the heart of the campaign, while Social Democrat Chancellor Christian Kern has touted falling unemployment and the fastest economic growth in six years.
Mr Kurz plans to cap benefits for refugees at well below the general level and bar other foreigners from receiving such payments until they have lived in the country for five years.
He also says he wants to shake up Austrian politics, which for decades has been dominated by coalitions between his party and the Social Democrats. His opponents say he is merely a new face on a party in power in various coalitions for 30 years.
Mr Kurz ended the current alliance with the Social Democrats when he took over his party, forcing the snap election.