New coalition government shifts Austria to the right

Austria's centre-right People's Party, led by Sebastian Kurz, and the anti-immigration Freedom Party, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, have agreed to form a coalition government after two months of talks.

Anti-immigration Freedom Party will take control of much of country's security apparatus

People's Party leader Sebastian Kurz, left, and Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache address a news conference in Vienna on Saturday. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters )

Austria has become the only western European country with a far-right party in government after the anti-immigration Freedom Party and Sebastian Kurz's conservatives struck a coalition deal.

Kurz, 31, and Freedom Party (FPO) leader Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, announced their deal on Friday night, handing the far right a share of power for the third time in the Alpine republic, after more than a decade in opposition.

At a joint news conference Saturday with Kurz to speak about the coalition deal, Strache said his party agreed to rule out a referendum on Austria leaving the European Union. The two men said they will also push for more relaxed relationship between the West and Russia.

They presented details of a law-and order-agenda that includes:

  • Introducing minimum sentences for violent and sex crimes.
  • Making fighting political Islam a priority.
  • Securing Austria's borders nationally to stop illegal immigration until the EU has secured external frontiers.
  • Putting around 2,100 more police officers on the streets.

Also under the deal, the FPO will take control of much of Austria's security apparatus as the deal puts it in charge of the foreign, interior and defence ministries, a spokesperson for Kurz's People's Party (OVP) said. The OVP will control the finance ministry as well as the justice and agriculture portfolios.

"If everything goes as we imagine it will, nothing stands in the way of the future government being sworn it at the start of the coming week," President Alexander Van der Bellen, whose powers include appointing and dismissing governments, said after meeting Kurz and Strache on Saturday morning.

Van der Bellen beat a far-right candidate in last year's close-fought presidential election with a pro-European platform.

8 ministries for OVP, 6 for FPO

His defeated opponent, Norbert Hofer, will become infrastructure minister in the next government, the OVP spokesperson said. Kurz will head the government as chancellor and the OVP will have eight ministries including his office. The FPO will have six, including Strache's office as vice chancellor.

Kurz has repeatedly said his government will be pro-European despite his pursuit of a tie-up with the Eurosceptic FPO. His office will take over some European departments from the foreign ministry to give him greater control over EU matters, a person close to the talks and a senior OVP official said.

Austria's parliamentary election two months ago was dominated by Europe's migration crisis, in which the affluent country took in a large number of asylum seekers.

Kurz's party won with a hard line on immigration that often overlapped with the FPO's, pledging to cut benefits for refugees and never to allow a repeat of 2015's wave of arrivals. The FPO came third in the election with 26 per cent of the vote.

Warning of parallel societies

While there has been no specific mention of repelling that Muslim influx, the symbolism is clear for two parties that have warned Muslim "parallel societies" are emerging in Austria.

Of Austria's 8.7 million people, more than half a million are Muslim, mostly Turkish or of Turkish origin. There are few obvious signs of sectarian tension and the country has been spared major Islamist militant attacks like those that have struck Paris, Brussels and Berlin.

Strache and Kurz oppose Turkish membership of the EU, a position that polls regularly show most Austrians agree with.

The coalition deal ends more than a decade in opposition for the FPO, a party whose founders included former Nazis and once led by the late Jorg Haider, who praised Hitler's employment policies and brought the party mainstream electoral success.

More recently, anti-establishment parties have been winning over more voters in Europe, capitalizing on dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians' handling of the economy, security and immigration.

While other far-right parties have gained ground this year, entering parliament in Germany and making France's presidential run-off, the FPO is going further by entering government and securing key ministries.

Unlike France's National Front, the FPO has backed away from calling for a referendum on leaving the EU, but Kurz has still secured a guarantee that there will be no Brexit-style referendum in Austria, a person familiar with the talks said.

Both parties want to make it possible to call referendums by petition.

Focus on securing EU borders

Both the OVP and FPO believe the EU should focus on fewer tasks, like securing its external borders, and hand more power back to member states.

When the FPO last entered government in 2000 other EU countries imposed sanctions on Vienna in protest. There is unlikely to be a similar outcry this time, given the rise of anti-establishment parties across the continent.

"We want to reduce the burden on taxpayers … and above all we want to ensure greater security in our country, including through the fight against illegal immigration," Kurz said Friday.