Austrian coalition talks in 'final slalom'


Vienna (AFP)

Austria's far-right was reportedly set Friday to secure the interior and defence ministries as coalition talks entered the final straight, with negotiators hopeful for a deal later in the day.

The agreement will crown Sebastian Kurz, 31, as the world's youngest leader at the head of a coalition of his conservative People's Party (OeVP) with the nationalist Freedom Party (FPOe).

Gernot Bluemel, an OeVP negotiator, said that he was "hopeful that we can reach a deal today (Friday)" and, in a skiing analogy, that the talks were in the "final slalom".

"I can't promise anything but I am confident," he said.

Television cameras and photographers were gathered at the grand Palais Epstein on Vienna's opulent Ringstrasse boulevard where the talks were taking place waiting for an announcement.

Kurz's party came first in elections on October 15 after he rebranded the staid OeVP as his own youthful personal "movement", promising to get tough on immigration and lower taxes.

The nationalist, anti-immigration Freedom Party came third with 26 percent of the vote.

The rightwards shift came after both parties stoked concerns about immigration and fatigue with the previous unhappy "grand coalition" of the OeVP with the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe).

This was mirrored elsewhere, with Geert Wilders' Freedom Party now the second-largest in the Netherlands, France's National Front in the runoff for the presidency in May and Alternative for Germany (AfD) entering the Bundestag.

- Real power -

But the FPOe, founded by former Nazis in the 1950s, is rare in western Europe in having translated its ballot box success into real power. Last year it came close to winning the largely ceremonial presidency.

FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache, 48, is set to become deputy chancellor. According to Der Standard's online edition, the party will also secure the interior and the defence ministries.

A seasoned diplomat close to the FPOe, although not a member, is set to be named foreign minister. The OeVP will obtain the finance, economy and justice ministries, amongst others, Der Standard said.

The last time the FPOe entered government, in 2000 under controversial then-leader Joerg Haider, now dead, Austria was briefly ostracised within the European Union.

This time though the reaction is likely to be much more muted with the FPOe seen as having mellowed and with Europe more inured to right-wing parties.

The FPOe remains fiercely nationalist, however. The party, which has a partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin's ruling party, wants EU sanctions on Moscow lifted and says Islam is not part of Austria.

In 2016 Strache called German Chancellor Angela Merkel "the most dangerous woman in Europe" over her open-door migrants policy, and said that "civil war is not improbable in the medium term" because of immigration.

The FPOe is also ambivalent about the European Union but Kurz said on Thursday that the "pro-European" stance of the incoming government "from my point of view has been secured".

One notable agreement to have emerged so far from the coalition talks is a pledge to scrap a law that would have banned smoking from all bars and restaurants from May 2018, despite a widespread outcry.

If they seal a deal, separate meetings of the two parties on Saturday were due to give their approval before Kurz and Strache give a news conference. The government would then be sworn in next week.