Migrant policy: how will it sway the German and Austrian elections?

13 Sep 2017By kerrys


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SBS World News Radio: Germany and Austria are neighbours in election mode, with Germans voting in important national elections on October 15 and Austrians three weeks later.

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The polls suggest Chancellor Angela Merkel, deemed the conservative, will win in Germany, and young Sebastian Kurz, likewise deemed the conservative, will win in Austria.

But the conservative title is just about all the two candidates have in common.

That was Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz, now leader of the People's Party, telling supporters he looks forward to celebrating an election victory on October 15.

Kurz was just 30 years old when he took over the leadership of Austria's conservatives in May.

He has since turned 31 and turned around his party's fortunes, taking the party from number three to number one in the opinion polls.

How has he done it?

Well, if Germany's Angela Merkel opened Europe's door to millions of migrants, the young Mr Kurz is keen to be seen as the one who closed it.

On the campaign trail, immigration and integration are his main themes.

"My main aim is a result that will strengthen us so that my responsible policies on immigration and integration issues -- and on other issues -- can be implemented."

Whereas in Germany Angela Merkel is seen as the favourite to win on the strength of her liberal immigration policies, in Austria, Sebastian Kurz plans to win with just the opposite.

That was the sound of Vienna's West Railway Station in 2015, when hundreds of thousands of migrants -- most fleeing Middle East conflicts -- surged into Europe.

They came on what became known as the Balkan route.

As Austria's foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz led the successful efforts to essentially close that route.

Political scientist Reinhard Heinisch says that is when the young politician saw his chance.

"He, early on, understood that this was an issue that could backfire and people were getting increasingly alarmed and concerned about immigration, at a time when politicians in his own party hadn't recognised this."

Under Mr Kurz's leadership, the People's Party has jumped almost 10 per cent in the opinion polls and is now well ahead of the Social Democrats, who narrowly won the last election.

Reinhard Heinisch says Mr Kurz's moves have allowed a party previously seen as stale and out of touch to grab supporters from other parties.

"He's been able to get voters away from the far-right Freedom Party, and that actually makes him very strong. He's the first non-Freedom Party candidate who can use the immigration issue to his own advantage, and that's one of the pillars of his strength."

Like Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in Germany, if Sebastian Kurz wins in Austria, he will need a coalition partner.

But unlike the German leader, he has not ruled out a coalition with a dedicated anti-immigration party -- in Austria's case, the Freedom Party.

Dr Melanie Sully, of the Vienna-based democracy research centre Go-Governance, says that party is more successful than its German counterpart, Alternative for Deutschland.

"I mean, it's very different. In Austria, you have the far right populist Freedom Party which looked poised to get into government. Whereas, in Germany, you've got far-right parties, yeah, but they've not been a threat in electoral terms, or in government terms, to the CDU."

It is the sound of the well-groomed, would-be Austrian chancellor at a provincial campaign rally.

Plenty of older supporters are there and, unusually for a People's Party rally, there are plenty of young supporters, too.

"He's a breath of fresh air, as he's a younger politician, and, as a young person, I really like that."


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