By Kirsti Knolle and Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria holds a parliamentary election on Sunday in which a young conservative star hopes to beat the far right at its own game with a hard line on refugees and pledging to prevent a repeat of Europe's migration crisis.
Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, who is just 31, propelled his conservative People's Party (OVP) to the top of opinion polls when he became its leader in May, dislodging the far-right Freedom Party from the spot it had held for more than a year. He is now the clear favorite to become Austria's next leader.
Kurz has pledged to shut down migrants' main routes into Europe, through the Balkans and across the Mediterranean. Many voters now feel the country was overrun when it threw open its borders in 2015 to a wave of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Chancellor Christian Kern's Social Democrats (SPO) are currently in coalition with Kurz's OVP, but Kurz called an end to the alliance when he took over the helm of his party, forcing Sunday's snap election.
Opinion polls have consistently shown the OVP in the lead with around a third of the vote, and second place being a tight race between the Social Democrats and the Freedom Party (FPO), whose candidate came close to winning last year's presidential election.
"We must stop illegal immigration to Austria because otherwise there will be no more order and security," Kurz told tabloid daily Oesterreich on Friday night.
Campaigning has been dominated by the immigration issue. Kurz plans to cap benefit payments for refugees at well below the general level and bar other foreigners from receiving such payments until they have lived in the country for five years.
He says he wants to shake up Austrian politics, which for decades has been dominated by a coalition between his party and the Social Democrats.
Kurz's opponents say he is merely a new face on an old party that has been in power in various coalitions for 30 straight years.
As campaigning drew to a close over the weekend, the leaders of all three top parties warned voters to be skeptical about polling in an effort to improve their turnout.
"You should not pay attention to opinion polls. You should instead go by the atmosphere here," FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache said in front of cheering supporters at a shopping mall in Vienna on Saturday, adding that only Sunday's vote counted.
With little daylight between Kurz and the FPO on immigration, the FPO has accused Kurz of copying its ideas.
"He (Kurz) is an HC Strache impersonator," Strache said.
Kern and his Social Democrats are hoping for a strong finish, having been sent into a tailspin two weeks ago by a smear scandal that forced their chairman to step down.
"You must go out now, go to your neighbors, go into bars, go to your friends and tell them what is at stake," Kern told a party rally in Vienna on Saturday, depicting Kurz as the candidate of the rich and powerful.
"If you do that, I guarantee you we will make a success of this election," he said, warning of a repeat of the coalition between the OVP and Freedom Party in the early 2000s that was marked by financial scandals.
The winner of the election is traditionally tasked with forming a government, which will most likely require a coalition with one of the two other main parties. With Kurz and Kern at loggerheads, the FPO has a good chance of being kingmaker.
Three smaller parties are polling between 4 percent -- the threshold for entering parliament -- and 6 percent.
The last polling stations close at 5 p.m. (1500 GMT), with the first projections due minutes later. A final count is expected later in the evening.
Any tight margins might not be settled on the night, however, since a record number of postal ballots have been issued -- even more than in the presidential run-off in May of last year, in which they swung the result, though a re-run was later ordered.
The Interior Ministry said more than 889,000 postal ballots had been issued, enough for roughly a seventh of the 6.4 million registered voters.
The counting of those ballots will not begin until Monday. They can also be cast in polling stations, including ones where the voter is not registered.
(Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Richard Balmforth)