Austria's Kurz poised to bring far right into government

Reuters News
Posted: Dec 15, 2017 11:59 AM

By Shadia Nasralla and Kirsti Knolle

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria is poised to become the only western European country with a far-right party in government as Sebastian Kurz's conservatives and the anti-immigration Freedom Party inched towards a coalition deal on Friday.

People close to the talks said an agreement was likely to be reached in the evening. That would end more than a decade in opposition for the Freedom Party (FPO), which last entered government in 2000 with the People's Party (OVP) Kurz now leads.

After a campaign dominated by the European migration crisis, Kurz's OVP won an Oct. 15 parliamentary election with a hard line on immigration that often overlapped with the Freedom Party's. The FPO came third with 26 percent of the vote.

"We are putting effort into this and we would be happy if it was possible to announce an agreement to you today, but I cannot promise it yet," said Gernot Bluemel, a close Kurz ally and leader of the conservatives in Vienna.

"We hope that we can properly conclude (the last issues) over the course of today. If you want to compare it to a skiing race, we are now doing the last turns before the finish line... I am in good spirits."

Party officials said a news conference with Kurz and FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache was planned for 6 p.m. (1700 GMT) on Friday.

Anti-establishment parties have made large electoral gains in Europe in recent years, capitalizing on voter dissatisfaction with mainstream parties' handling of the economy, security and immigration.

Most -- including French National Front leader Marine Le Pen, an ally of the FPO's who made it to her country's presidential runoff this year -- have fallen short of entering government, but the FPO is expected to hold key posts.

A person familiar with the talks said the far-right party was poised to secure the Interior, Foreign and Defence Ministries.

When the Freedom Party last entered government in 2000, other EU countries imposed short-lived sanctions on Austria in protest. Given the changed political landscape in Europe since then, the reaction is likely to be more muted.

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Kurz has, however, sought to head off potential criticism by offering assurances that his government will be pro-European. He plans to shift some EU departments from the Foreign Ministry to his office, and has secured a guarantee that there will be no Brexit-stytle referendum on leaving the bloc, a source said.

Conservative Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka, whom a source close to the coalition talks and Austrian media have named as a contender for finance minister, told ORF radio "a new government will be sworn in on Monday". An FPO source confirmed the planned timing.

(Additional reporting by Francois Murphy; Writing by Francois Murphy and Shadia Nasralla; Editing by Michael Shields)