Austrians are voting in national elections on Sunday which could propel the rightwing nationalist Freedom Party into a coalition government with the frontrunner, 31-year-old foreign minister Sebastian Kurz.
The centre-right People’s party of Mr Kurz is forecast to take the largest share of the vote in Sunday’s contest, which followed the collapse in May of the “grand coalition” of his party and current chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats.
But attention is likely to focus on the vote won by the Freedom party, one of Europe’s oldest anti-establishment movements, which is expected to increase its share significantly from the 20.5 per cent it achieved in 2013. Polls suggest Sunday’s vote could match the 1999 peak of 27 per cent.
The Freedom party gained international notoriety in the 1990s for its xenophobia, links to pan-German nationalists and airbrushing of Austria’s Nazi past. Support has surged again since Europe’s migration crisis in 2015.
Heinz-Christian Strache, leader since 2005, has warned of Austria’s “Islamification,” telling a final campaign rally in Vienna late on Friday: “We live in a Christian country in the heart of Europe.”
Austria, which has a population of about 9m, was on the route of refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria, and received 130,000 asylum applications in 2015 and 2016.
Anti-establishment, populist forces had appeared in retreat in Europe following France’s presidential election in May. A strong result for the Freedom party in Austria could restore a sense of momentum.
Mr Kurz, however, has blunted the challenge, largely by adopting a similarly tough line to the Freedom party on stopping illegal immigration, limiting foreigners’ access to Austria’s generous welfare system and pushing for the stronger defence of the EU’s external borders.
The foreign minister has also promised to shake up Austria’s political system — which has seen “grand coalitions” running the country for most of the post-second world war era. In his last campaign appearances on Friday he urged Austrians to vote “for real change”.
Polls suggest Mr Kurz’s People’s Party could take as much as third of the vote. In contrast, the Social Democrats are expected to see their vote fall significantly from the almost 27 per cent they won in 2013 — and could drop into third place.
Topping Sunday’s poll would give Mr Kurz the first right to form a government and become chancellor. The Freedom party could join his government as a coalition ally — or could even try to claim the chancellorship if Mr Kurz’s negotiations failed. Alternatively, the Freedom party could try to agree a coalition deal with the Social Democrats.
Sunday’s election results will herald the start of complex coalition negotiations, which could mean it is weeks or months before the composition of the next Austrian government is clear. Austria is among the most economically successful members of the EU, strategically located between western and eastern Europe, and is often a bellwether of political trends.