Sebastian Kurz was poised to return to power in Austria on Sunday night as his party made sweeping gains in elections while the far-Right Freedom Party (FPÖ) suffered a crushing defeat.
While it fell short of an absolute majority, Mr Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) took a commanding first place with 37.1 per cent — a record 15 points clear of its nearest competitor.
The centre-Left Social Democrats (SPÖ), who have dominated much of postwar Austrian politics, fell to their worst ever result with just 21.7 per cent.
The Freedom Party, which had campaigned for a renewal of its coalition with Mr Kurz, saw massive losses, limping into third place with just 16.1 per cent — ten points down from two years ago.
“I’m almost speechless,” Mr Kurz told jubilant supporters. “I didn’t expect these results. We’ve had a difficult four months but the people decided to vote us in.”
Although he still faces the task of forming a government, Mr Kurz’s decision to gamble on ending his coalition with the Freedom Party and force snap elections appeared to have paid off.
He has inflicted serious damage on the Freedom Party and will now have a choice of coalition partners.
The Freedom Party appeared to concede defeat and signal a return to opposition as the results poured in.
“This is not a mandate to continue the government,” Herbert Kickl, the party’s deputy leader and former interior minister, said.
Harald Vilimsky, the party’s leader in the European Parliament, called for a “fresh start” for the party with “new faces in charge”.
The party appeared to pay the price for a series of corruption scandals centred on its former leader, Heinz-Christian Strache.
Mr Kurz ended the coalition over a video of Mr Strache offering a woman posing as a Russian oligarch government contracts in return for electoral support, and further allegations have since emerged.
Mr Strache was ousted as leader, but it wasn’t enough to placate voters. His successor, Norbert Hofer, is widely expected to face a challenge following the disappointing results, and Mr Kickl indicated on Sunday night that he was interested in the job.
Peter Hajek, a leading Austrian political analyst, predicted “trench warfare” within the party that could see it “implode”.
Mr Kurz now has a choice of three potential coalition partners, but his party was refusing to answer questions on its preferred choice last night.
“I understand that everyone is obviously very interested in this,” said Karl Nehammer, the party chairman. “But today is the day of Sebastian Kurz and the People’s Party. There will be talks and then we will see who we can best form a government with.”
The fact is that while Mr Kurz has a choice of partner, coalition negotiations will not be easy. He could open talks with the Social Democrats, but a renewal of the “grand coalitions” that have ruled Austria for most of the postwar years would be deeply unpopular, and his personal relations with the Social Democrat leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner are icy.
Mirroring results elsewhere in Europe, the other big winners of the night were the Greens, who ended a two-year absence from parliament after a dramatic comeback took them into fourth place with 14 per cent.
That raised the possibility of a coalition between the People’s Party and the Greens. But they are far apart on many key policy issues, and while speaking of their willingness to talk, senior Greens were quick to downplay the chances of such an alliance on Sunday night.
“We have always said we will talk with Kurz, everything else we will see later,” Werner Kogler, the Green leader, said. Thimo Fiesel, the Green campaign chairman, stressed that the party’s course was one that the People’s Party “has so far not followed”.
“Sebastian Kurz will have to come to us, as I see little room for manouevre,” he said.
“The People’s Party would have to make a 180-degree turn,” Sigrid Mauer, a senior party figure, added.