Polling stations have opened in Austria for snap parliamentary elections. A coalition of right-wing and far-right parties is expected after Sunday's vote, as Bernd Riegert reports from Vienna.
The right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) has a loyal support base that continues to grow. In Austria's parliamentary election on Sunday, the FPÖ could achieve the best result in its history. Pollsters see the Freedom Party as third — or maybe even second — strongest party in parliament after the election.
Sebastian Kurz, the conservative candidate of the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), is leading the polls by a clear margin. The FPÖ and the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) are fighting for second place. SPÖ Chancellor Christian Kern, however, would seem to have no chance of defending his office.
"Somebody is finally doing something for us Austrians," exclaims a 19-year-old student at an FPÖ election event in the south of Vienna, a traditionally working-class district ruled by the SPÖ.
But those days are long over. The FPÖ has already reached the heart of the electorate. Leading FPÖ candidate Heinz-Christian Strache now focuses on social issues, jobs, minimum wage and pensions, as the young conservative Kurz has taken the wind out of his sails by espousing traditional populist policies.
In a short period of time, Kurz has transformed the old ÖVP into a streamlined, nationalist-conservative party that has embraced the issues of immigration, integration and Islam in a personality-based campaign. He has thus succeeded in pushing the FPÖ out of the top position in the polls that it held as late as spring this year.
'This cannot go on'
At the campaign event in Vienna , the FPÖ does its best to get the crowd in a good mood with German music hits and beer in plastic cups. A high-school student from Vienna who wishes to remain unnamed explains why he will vote for the FPÖ: "Out of 27 students in my class, only three are Austrians. We've reached a point where this cannot go on."
He said that he and his fellow students here at the event were tolerant, but that enough was enough. "You have to ask Chancellor Kern what went wrong. After 40 years of working, my grandmother receives a pension of €950 ($1,120), while a refugee who has never worked here gets €830. This is just not right," he says.
FPÖ head "HC" Strache, who once maintained contacts in the neo-Nazi scene, now assumes a moderate, even statesmanlike air. He no longer dreams about leaving the European Union and the euro. However, he wants Austria to become a member of the Visegrad Group, a political alliance made up of former Soviet satellite states Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Strache thinks that like Hungary, Austria should also assert strong national interests in the EU and defy Brussels if need be.
More than 60 percent of voters expect a coalition of FPÖ and Kurz's new ÖVP. The FPÖ has long been a coalition partner in regional governments and many municipalities even have FPÖ mayors, despite the fact that analysts predicted the demise of the party after a split in 2005.
Twelve years later, the FPÖ is instead on the verge of becoming a partner in the national government for the second time in its history — the ÖVP already formed a coalition with the FPÖ in 2000. At that time, there were protests in the EU and attempts to impose sanctions. Nowadays, right-wing populists are nothing unusual in many EU countries, so there is not as much commotion.
The ÖVP and the FPÖ more or less agree on issues such as stopping immigration, cutting benefits paid to immigrants and the alleged Islamization of society. This was obvious in the numerous televised debates on Austrian television between leading party candidates.
"The FPÖ is no different from the German AfD," says Uschi Weiner with a sigh. She is working at a SPÖ campaign event across from Vienna City Hall. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the third strongest party in Germany in its first Bundestag election on September 24.
Weiner finds the shift to the right in Austria "bad, very bad, if it comes to that." Her hope is that "red" Chancellor Christian Kern will be able to win over voters with his ideas on social justice at the last minute, thus enabling him to form a coalition with the Greens and the liberal NEOS party.
Kern tries to set himself apart from his just 31-year-old Kurz by presenting himself as seasoned politician. But the nifty idea of refurbishing the ÖVP and presenting it as Kurz's list of candidates — as a movement, which is fashionable compared to the idea of a traditional party — seems to have taken off, as the young politician has shed the undesirable image of an old conservative.
On his election posters, Kurz looks more like a model for suits than a politician. "He is simply smart and young," said a young campaigner who is not much younger than the head of her party.
The 'dirt bucket' scandal
At the election campaign event at Vienna's City Hall, Kern reassures himself and his supporters. "It is not yet been decided who will become the next chancellor," he calls out to the crowd. The applause here is rather restrained compared to the FPÖ election event. There are skeptical faces in the crowd.
SPÖ supporter Uschi Weiner slowly opens up about the scandal involving SPÖ leader Kern. The center-right chancellor faces allegations that his party paid for websites discrediting Kurz, who has been leading in the polls. It turns out that Kern and his party were behind the dirty election campaign tactics.
According to the newspaper Der Standard, the scandal, along with the extremely aggressive TV debates between the leading ÖVP and SPÖ candidates, has put off many voters. People who are undecided or frustrated with the current political system may cast the decisive ballots in this election, it says. The paper believes that the FPÖ's candidate Strache has probably benefited from these events the most, as he can now present himself as a squeaky clean candidate.
Just two days before the election, around 30 percent of voters still did not know whom they would vote for.