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Far-Right Expected To Win Austrian Elections


We're going to start the program with today's elections in Austria. Early results in the parliamentary race suggest a right-leaning government will be formed due in large part to voters worried about Muslim refugees in Europe. That would put Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz on track to be Europe's youngest head of government. But his party did not get a majority, meaning he will have to partner with another faction, which many in Austria predict could be a right-wing party linked to former Nazis. We go to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who's in Vienna covering the election. Soraya, thanks for joining us.


MARTIN: So tell us more about the foreign minister and his party.

NELSON: Well, as you mentioned, he's young. He's 31 years old, and he has rock-star status, you know, with his youthful looks, slicked-back hair. He's an avid outdoorsman. He's also the longest-serving minister in the current government, if you can believe it. He was 24 when he became foreign minister. And his Austrian People's Party has been in the government even longer - 30 years. And yet, somehow, he's been able to persuade voters here that he and his party are really agents for change.

He took over that party, which is called the Austrian People's Party, in May. And he even gave it a new color. It normally is associated with the color black, but he gave it a turquoise color. And he managed to convince Austrians that they really needed a change in this government - that, again, his party had actually been in for 30 years - and that life for Austrians was becoming more difficult, even though the economy is doing pretty well here at the moment with more jobs and low unemployment.

MARTIN: Why would Kurz want to partner with the right-wing Freedom Party, which has links to former Nazis?

NELSON: Well, there are two reasons, really. For one thing is that he just collapsed the existing government. I mean, he basically called it quits with the center-left partners they had - the Social Democrats. So it doesn't really make much sense to partner with the Social Democrats, who are coming in either second or third of - the vote count is still going on. Plus, Kurz campaigned on Austrian insecurity, which he links to uncontrolled immigration of refugees. For example, the big wave that came to Austria and the rest of Europe in 2015. He also has been pretty strict about Islam and Muslims here. He helped pass a burka ban. He's a strong advocate for making all immigrants and refugees in Austria fit in or get out.

And this Freedom Party - the one with the Nazi links that we're talking about - has a similar platform. And, in fact, it accuses Kurz of co-opting their position, even though their message is much harsher and more xenophobic. But what's a clear - what's really clear from today's vote is that a majority of Austrian voters appear to have embraced this anti-Islam, anti-refugee message. So a partnership between these two could make sense.

MARTIN: Soraya, we only have about a minute left. So before we let you go, has there been reaction from outside Austria to these results?

NELSON: Well, the World Jewish Congress was quick to criticize the fact that Austrians have given the Freedom Party more than 25 percent of the vote. In a statement, the Jewish organization's president, Robert Lauder, says that the faction is full of, quote, "xenophobes and racists," and that he hopes that the Freedom Party doesn't end up in the government. But Kurz's ally, Gernot Bluemel, who heads the People Party in Vienna, dismisses fears, saying anyone his faction partners with will be kept in check.


GERNOT BLUEMEL: The crucial point is we are pro-European, so we would never accept an anti-European course in government coalition. We would never accept an anti-Semitic course in government - never, ever, ever.

NELSON: The foreign minister, Kurz, meanwhile, says that he'll talk to all winning parties before deciding.

MARTIN: Thanks, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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