BERLIN – Austria appeared headed toward early elections Monday after a breakdown of its coalition government, potentially paving a path to power for the far-right Freedom Party.
The turn of events adds to Europe’s already crammed election season while setting up the European far right’s best chance for a victory this year after loses in the Netherlands and France.
On Monday, senior Austrian officials were locked in meetings in Vienna, negotiating the timing of new elections after the ruling coalition, made up of the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right People’s Party, found itself at a political impasse. Though the coalition was set to govern until 2018, an early vote is now expected no later than autumn.
Austria’s anti-Islam, anti-migrant Freedom Party is topping some key opinion polls.
“The people are so fed up with the grand coalition that they prefer anything else,” said Peter Hajek, a Vienna-based political scientist.
In recent weeks, the alliance between the Social Democrats and the People’s Party has frayed amid severe infighting that markedly deepened last week with the resignation of Reinhold Mitterlehner, former chief of the People’s Party. The Social Democrats and its junior partners, the People’s Party, have argued over a batch of measures, holding up major decisions on education and tax reform.
Meanwhile, the People’s Party has been in the throes of a leadership upheaval that resulted in the crowning Sunday of a new chairman: Sebastian Kurz, a 30-year-old rising star who has been serving as Austria’s foreign minister.
Kurz has taken a sharp anti-refugee stance in recent months, currying favor with harder-right elements in Austria while also managing to sidestep the racist tone of the Freedom Party. Though his People’s Party polls in third place overall, Kurz himself is widely seen as Austria’s single most popular politician.
When taking over the top job Monday, he won significant concessions for new powers from his party elders – including the right to rename it the “New People’s Party” on election ballots. Soon after winning, Kurz reiterated his call for early elections.
After Kurz’s elevation, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern of the Social Democrats conceded Sunday that there was no way to prevent a snap vote.
On Monday, Kern said that he was aiming for an “orderly process” toward an early vote, and expressed hope that a few initiatives on the government’s agenda could still be pushed through before and during the summer.
Kern said he would like to see Kurz become vice chancellor. Even if he does, it appears that such a deal would simply create a placeholder cabinet that would usher in new elections.
Before deciding on taking the job, Kurz’s told reporters Monday that “in my opinion, it’s necessary to first agree on a date for new elections.”
Given the distribution of public support for Austria’s various parties, a coalition between at least two parties appears almost inevitable. The Freedom Party, analysts say, might actually be hurt by Kurz’s rise – suggesting that he may poach some of their traditional voters. Nevertheless, the Freedom Party still has a good shot of being asked to help form a new government with the center-right People’s Party, or possibly even the center-left Social Democrats.
Both mainstream parties campaigned last year against the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer, who narrowly lost his bid for the ceremonial post of president. Ever since, both parties, already shifting to the right, have begun to sound even more like the Freedom Party on a number of key issues, particularly on immigrants. To avoid working with each other, neither party appears to be explicitly excluding the possibility of a coalition government with the Freedom Party.
The last time the Freedom Party formed part of the government – in the 2000s – the coalition was considered a failure, leading to a fissure among the party’s supporters. But since Hofer’s loss, the Freedom Party has moderated its stance on a number of issues. It has backed off, for instance, on suggestions that it might seek a referendum on leaving the European Union similar to the one held in Britain.
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