VIENNA (AP) – In an election that could shake up Austria’s politics, voters were deciding Sunday whether the nation moves to the right after decades of centrist policies. The result could pave the way for Europe’s youngest government leader.
Three parties, and two messages, are vying for first place in the general election: the center-left Social Democrats are campaigning on reducing social inequality, while the People’s Party and the Freedom Party have focused on concerns about immigration and Islam.
The latter two parties have called for securing Austria’s borders and quickly deporting asylum-seekers whose requests are denied – ideas that appear to have been heard. The People’s Party went into the election with the most support, according to polls, with the Freedom Party second and the Social Democrats third.
Much of the People’s Party’s appeal is due to its leader, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who at 31 would become Europe’s youngest leader if his party wins and he can form a government.
Since taking the helm in the spring amid growing strains between the governing Social Democratic-People’s Party coalition, he has moved his center-right party further to the right, particularly on the issues of migration and Muslims. But he avoids the inflammatory rhetoric of the right-wing Freedom Party and its head, Heinz-Christian Strache.
That makes Kurz’s party appealing to voters sensitive about immigration in the wake of the 2015 mass influx of mostly Muslim migrants into the EU but who oppose the Freedom Party. Strache has modified the tone of his message and the party is keen on shedding its past links to anti-Semitism. But it continues to attract a small neo-Nazi fringe.
More than 6.4 million Austrians were eligible to vote. The last polling stations close at 1500 GMT (11 a.m. EDT). Final results aren’t expected until later this coming week, when the last of the absentee ballots and ballots cast at polling stations outside a voter’s district are counted.