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Austria set to elect youngest EU leader in right-wing push

  • Nina Lamparski

    Agence France-Presse

Vienna, Austria   /   Sun, October 15, 2017   /   11:40 am
 Austria set to elect youngest EU leader in right-wing push Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs and the chairman of Austria's People's Party (OeVP), Sebastian Kurz talks to his supporters as he is leaving for his 36 hours rally tour in Vienna Austria on Oct. 13, 2017. Austria holds snap elections on Sunday, October 15, 2017, with conservative Sebastian Kurz, 31, expected to become Europe's youngest head of government by forming a coalition with the far-right. (Agence France-Presse/Joe Klamar)

Austrians were voting Sunday in a snap election tipped to see conservative Sebastian Kurz, 31, become the EU's youngest leader and form an alliance with the far-right, in the bloc's latest populist test.

A rightward shift in the wealthy European Union member of 8.75 million people would be a fresh headache for Brussels, as it already struggles with Britain's decision to leave and the rise of nationalists in Germany, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.

But all signs indicate that Austrians, fed up with a record influx of asylum-seekers, want to swap the gridlocked centrist rule for a more hardline government for the first time in a decade.

The People's Party (OeVP) -- rebranded by Kurz as his personal "movement" -- is projected to reap more than 30 percent of the vote with pledges to go tough on migrants and easy on taxes.

The fresh-faced "whizz-kid" is likely to form a coalition with the eurosceptic Freedom Party (FPOe), forecast to place second or third with at least 25 percent.

Founded by ex-Nazis, the FPOe almost won the presidency last year and topped opinion polls before Kurz stole votes with his radical OeVP makeover in spring.

FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, railed against asylum-seekers and vowed to stop Austrians from "becoming a minority in our own homeland", at a rally late Friday.

Meanwhile embattled Chancellor Christian Kern, 51, and his once-mighty Social Democrats (SPOe) could be flushed into opposition after their promising campaign suffered blunders and scandals.

Open hostility between the ex-railway chief and Kurz also makes any new attempt at ruling together seem unlikely.

Kern, in office since last May, issued a final warning Saturday against a right-wing alliance, saying "Austria was at the most important crossroads in decades".

The OeVP and FPOe already shared power between 2000 and 2007. At the time the alliance with the far-right -— then led by the late, SS-admiring Joerg Haider —- ostracized Austria.

But its return may not trigger the same backlash now that nationalists have gained ground across Europe.