Austrians on Sunday began casting their ballots in snap elections that are being closely watched as a further gauge of rising populist sentiment in the European Union.
Although conservative Sebastian Kurz, 31, is forecast to win more than 30 percent of the vote with his revamped Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), the far-right, anti-immigration Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) is considered a strong contender for second place and could thus be a possible coalition partner in a new government.
The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) of Chancellor Christian Kern is the FPÖ’s main challenger for runner-up, but has been hurt during the campaign by revelations that Kern hired an Israeli spin doctor who was reported to have set up fake websites to discredit Kurz.
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Kurz espouses immigration policies not dissimilar to those of the far right
Immigration: A core election issue
Kurz has taken some of the wind from the sails of the FPÖ under Heinz-Christian Strache by adopting similar positions on radically curbing immigration to those held by the far-right party. The FPÖ has thus been forced to try to shed its radical image, focusing instead on social issues, jobs and pensions in a bid to enter the mainstream.
Several surveys have shown voters seeing migration as the most important issue after some 130,000 asylum seekers sought refuge in Austria in 2015 and 2016.
The decade-long coalition of the centrist SPÖ and ÖVP broke down in May when the ÖVP made the young, popular Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz its new leader. Kurz has since led in voter surveys.
The ÖVP has already been in coalition with the far-right FPÖ once before, in 2000, a move that at the time aroused considerable protest in Austria and beyond.
First estimates of Sunday’s election results are expected shortly after polls close at 1500 UTC.
tj/jm (dpa, AFP)