Voters in Austria are casting their ballots in a snap election that could put young conservative Sebastian Kurz at the helm of the nation in a coalition with the country’s far right.
The Sunday vote is being widely watched across Europe, where populist far-right parties are on the rise and are shifting political landscapes.
Here’s what you need to know.
Who are the main players?
Kurz, 31, is Austria’s foreign minister and has led the conservative People’s Party (OVP) since May. He is expected to become the new Chancellor — and the country’s youngest-ever leader.
But that isn’t an absolute given. Should his party win the most seats, Kurz is likely to depend on forming an alliance, and the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) is most likely to find itself in the position of kingmaker.
Unlike Germany’s far-right AfD party — which won its first seats in the Bundestag in the federal elections there last month — the FPO has a long history in Austria’s Parliament and was part of a coalition government between 2000 and 2005.
Kurz’s People’s Party had been in a ruling coalition with Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats (SPO), but that partnership collapsed in May.
Kurz called the snap election after the OVP’s former leader and Austria’s vice-chancellor, Reinhold Mitterlehner, resigned from both posts, saying the government was riven by infighting.
Polls predict heavy losses for Kern’s party and gains for Kurz.
The FPO is headed up by Heinz Christian-Strache, who has called for “minus migration” and a ban on “fascistic Islam.”
Didn’t Austria have elections recently?
Yes — Austrians went to the polls three times in 2016 to elect a new president. The first round of voting in April narrowed the field to two candidates, but the first attempt at the second round was annulled after the losing candidate — the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer — challenged the close result.
A rerun in December ended with the same result — and a larger majority for Hofer’s left-wing rival, Alexander Van der Bellen, who described his win as a victory for “freedom, equality and solidarity.”
But with almost half of the electorate casting their vote for a far-right, anti-immigration candidate less than a year ago, all eyes will be on the Freedom Party’s performance in a parliamentary election in which 16 parties are fighting for seats.
How does the vote work?
Around 6.4 million Austrians are eligible to vote. Their ballots will decide the 183 members of the Austrian National Council (or “Nationalrat”), the largest and most important of the country’s two assembly chambers.
The SPO is currently the largest party with 52 seats, while the OVP has 47 and the FPO 40.
What are the key issues?
Immigration has dominated the campaign. Kurz has taken a hard line, calling for limits on the number of refugees entering Europe and benefits cuts for EU migrants living in Austria.
His stint as Foreign Minister suggests his tough stance is not just rhetoric designed to entice voters away from the anti-immigrant Freedom Party.
In 2016, Kurz spearheaded a border crackdown across the Balkans designed to stem the flow of migrants, and this year he proposed plans to seal off the Mediterranean route to Europe.
With migration dominating the campaign, the social issues at the heart of the SPO platform — including wealth redistribution and fighting unemployment — have been largely ignored.
Unlike elsewhere in Europe, though, the presence of a strong far-right party has not propelled the European Union up the agenda. Most Austrians support the country’s continued membership of the bloc, and even the Freedom Party is calling for EU reforms rather than withdrawal.
Why does it matter?
The biggest impact of an OVP/FPO coalition would probably be felt by those people seeking new lives in Europe.
A right-wing government led by Kurz would likely curtail the rights of migrants and refugees already in Austria and make it more difficult for others to enter.
And although Austria is unlikely to leave the EU, the nationalist tendencies of Kurz and Christian-Strache could pose challenges to the notion of a liberal, centralized European Union defined by solidarity and cooperation, as championed by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
An OVP/FPO coalition would instead provide a boost for right-wing populists across the bloc, particularly in Hungary and Poland, who are part of the Visegrad Group, an alliance of nations that oppose immigration and want a more decentralized EU. Christian-Strache recently said he would like Austria to join the group, according to Reuters reports.
That outcome would be more bad news for European social democracy in a year that has already seen support for center-left parties plummet in national elections in France and Germany.