Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, 31, looked on course Sunday to become Europe’s youngest leader, likely in coalition with the anti-immigration far right, after his conservative party was projected to come first in elections.
The projections sparked immediate concern from Jewish groups over the anticipated return of “xenophobes and racists” to the Austrian government.
Initial projections put the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) in second place, but later estimates had it slipping to third.
Kurz’s People’s Party (OeVP) won 30.5 percent of the vote, followed by Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats (SPOe) on 27.1 percent and the Freedom Party on 25.9 percent, projections on public TV showed.
Even though final results are only expected in several days, Kurz declared victory shortly after the projections were announced.
“I promise I will fight for great change in this country. It’s time to establish a new political style and a new culture in this country,” Kurz said Sunday.
Kurz, nicknamed “wunderwuzzi,” is expected to form a coalition with the anti-immigration FPOe of Heinz-Christian Strache, 48.
It would be the first time the far-right party has entered government since 2000 under Joerg Haider.
Like the Alternative for Germany, which last month became the third-largest party in the Bundestag, and France’s National Front, the FPOe has stoked concerns about a record influx of migrants into Europe.
The party was founded by ex-Nazis in the 1950s — Strache flirted with neo-Nazism in his youth — and is highly critical of the European Union. It wants EU sanctions on Russia lifted.
The World Jewish Congress (WJC) said it was seriously concerned about the strong showing of the far-right Freedom Party and its head, Heinz-Christian Strache.
“It is sad and distressing that such a platform should receive more than a quarter of the vote and become the country’s second party,” said WJC President Ronald Lauder, who served as US ambassador to Austria from 1986 to 1987.
“It is still full of xenophobes and racists and is, mildly put, very ambiguous toward Austria’s Nazi past. My only hope is that they won’t end up in government,” he said.
Another option for Kurz would be another “grand coalition” with the SPOe, but after 10 acrimonious years governing together — ended early by Kurz in May — this is seen as less likely.
The FPOe’s return to power in the wealthy EU member would be a fresh headache for Brussels as it struggles with Brexit and the rise of nationalists in Germany, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.
In December, the FPOe almost won the presidency and topped opinion polls in the midst of Europe’s migrant crisis.
But since taking over the OeVP in May and re-branding it as his personal “movement,” Kurz has stolen some of Strache’s thunder by talking tough on immigration and criticizing the European Union as well.
Both the People’s Party and the Freedom Party have called for securing Austria’s borders and quickly deporting asylum-seekers whose requests are denied.
Some 6.4 million people were eligible to vote in the closely-watched ballot which is expected to be a tight race.
“I’m feeling optimistic,” OeVP party volunteer Michael Brandstetter told AFP in Vienna ahead of the vote.
“The way Kurz goes about things is what has captured people’s minds”.
For his turquoise movement, Kurz drew young candidates from outside politics and vowed to put “Austrians first” again.
As foreign minister, Kurz claims credit for closing the Balkan migrant trail in 2016, earning him praise at home.
Pushing far-right themes, he wants to cut benefits for all foreigners, slash Austria’s red tape and keep the EU out of national affairs — in common with Strache.
Experts say a right-wing government could turn Austria into a tricky partner for the bloc.
Vienna will hold the EU’s presidency in the second half of 2018, just when Brussels wants to conclude Brexit talks.
“The Freedom Party as a government partner will not make a good impression in Europe (and) Kurz is aware of that,” commented Der Standard newspaper in its weekend edition.
“But the question is whether there is any getting around Strache after this election.”