VIENNA • Austria voted yesterday in a parliamentary election that could see 31-year-old conservative Sebastian Kurz become chancellor on a pledge to take a hard line on refugees and prevent a repeat of Europe's migration crisis.
A rightward shift in the wealthy European Union nation of 8.75 million people would be a fresh headache for Brussels as it struggles with Britain's decision to leave and the rise of nationalists in Germany, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere.
But all signs indicate that Austrians, fed up with a record influx of asylum seekers, want to swop the gridlocked centrist rule for a more hardline government for the first time in a decade.
Mr Kurz's People's Party (OVP) is in the lead with 30.2 per cent, with its current coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPO), at 26.3 per cent, neck-and-neck with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) which is at 26.8 per cent, a projection by pollster Sora said shortly after polls closed, based on an early count of 42 per cent of non-postal ballots.
But the OVP is well short of a majority and could seek an alliance with the far right.
Foreign Minister Kurz propelled his party to the top of opinion polls when he became leader in May, dislodging the far-right FPO that had led for a year. Mr Kurz says he will shut the main migrant routes into Europe, via the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Many voters say Austria was overrun when it opened its borders in 2015 to hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Chancellor Christian Kern's SPO are in a coalition with the OVP but Mr Kurz ended the alliance when he took over his party in May, forcing yesterday's snap election.
Opinion polls showed the conservatives ahead with around a third of the vote and a tight race for second between the SPO and FPO, whose candidate nearly won last year's presidential election.
Immigration has dominated the campaign. Mr Kurz plans to cap benefits for refugees at well below the general level and bar other foreigners from receiving such payments until they have lived in the country for five years.
He also says he wants to shake up Austrian politics, which for decades has been dominated by a coalition between his party and the Social Democrats. His opponents say he is merely a new face on a party in power in various coalitions for 30 years.
The FPO has accused Mr Kurz of copying its ideas and FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache called him an "impersonator".
The SPO, which was hit two weeks ago by a smear scandal that forced its chairman to step down, warned of a repeat of the OVP-FPO coalition in the early 2000s that was marked by financial scandals.
The election winner forms a government that will likely require a coalition with one of the two other main parties.
With Mr Kurz and Mr Kern at loggerheads, the FPO could play kingmaker. Three smaller parties are polling between 4 per cent, which is the threshold for entering Parliament, and 6 per cent.
Experts say a right-wing government could turn Austria into a tricky partner for the EU.
Vienna will hold the EU's presidency in the second half of next year, just when Brussels wants to conclude Brexit talks.
"The Freedom Party as a government partner will not make a good impression in Europe (and) Kurz is aware of that," commented Der Standard newspaper in its weekend edition.
"But the question is whether there is any getting around Strache after this election."
Final results of the election might come today.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE