Austria Votes After Scandal
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Austria holds elections tomorrow. Voters will select new leaders four months after a scandal brought down the government - a coalition between anti-immigrant conservatives and the far-right. Joanna Kakissis reports from Vienna that despite the scandal, the two parties could govern together again.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Everyone expects that the Conservative People's Party will come in first in Sunday's elections and that its popular leader Sebastian Kurz will return as Austria's chancellor.
REINHARD HEINISCH: He's handsome, he's rhetorically gifted, he's young and, to a lot of the Conservatives, represents the future.
KAKISSIS: Reinhard Heinisch is a comparative politics professor at the University of Salzburg.
HEINISCH: By moving his party to the right, he was able to steal votes away from the far-right. But nonetheless, he's in part responsible for legitimizing and mainstreaming the far-right by forming a government with the Freedom Party.
KAKISSIS: And everyone is wondering if Kurz will team up with the party again, since the Conservatives likely won't get enough votes to govern alone. The 33-year-old Kurz's run as the world's youngest chancellor ended abruptly last May...
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HEINZ-CHRISTIAN STRACHE: (Speaking foreign language)
KAKISSIS: ..After media published a sting video of his vice chancellor, the former Freedom Party leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, on the Spanish island of Ibiza. Strache appeared with a woman posing as a rich Russian close to the Kremlin. He offered her government contracts if she supported his party. Strache stepped down, and the government collapsed. But the scandal didn't ruin the Freedom Party.
At a mall in suburban Vienna, health care worker Brigitta Berger interrupts her errands to explain why.
BRIGITTA BERGER: (Through interpreter) At least the Freedom Party keeps migrants out of Austria, so there's more social welfare benefits for Austrians. This party puts Austrians first.
KAKISSIS: The party polished this message in 2015, when nearly a million migrants entered Europe. And Sebastian Kurz tried to co-opt the hardline rhetoric, says investigative reporter Nina Horaczek, who co-wrote a biography of Kurz.
NINA HORACZEK: (Through interpreter) He wanted to win over right wing voters by repeating the Freedom Party's strict anti-immigrant rhetoric in a nicer tone, so he normalized it.
KAKISSIS: So strong that Kurz invited the Freedom Party into his government in 2017. And then the rhetoric became action. The dorms housing migrants, for instance, were named departure centers. In the town of Traiskirchen, just outside Vienna, Afghan asylum seeker Daoud Saidi got the message.
DAOUD SAIDI: (Through interpreter) I'm not wanted here. I told the Austrian authorities that the Taliban took over my village and that it's not safe. But they told me I had to leave Austria.
KAKISSIS: The departure center signs are now gone. And migration is not the top issue in this election, but the Freedom Party is still using it as leverage.
HEINISCH: On the issues of immigration, the Freedom Party had posters saying, wow, Mr. Kurz is learning from us.
KAKISSIS: Again, politics professor Reinhard Heinisch.
HEINISCH: The slogan that the Freedom Party is posting is, we need to be strong so we can keep the conservatives on the right path.
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KAKISSIS: And for the Freedom Party, that means reconciling with Kurz. There is even a campaign commercial showing the new Freedom Party leader Norbert Hofer in couples therapy with an actor portraying Kurz.
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NORBERT HOFER: (Speaking Foreign Language)
KAKISSIS: We've got so much in common, Hofer says. We just need a little push to get back together.
For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Vienna.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA, DOMINIC SMITH, ET. AL.'S "LESSONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.