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Austrian parties in election TV clash


Austrian parties in election TV clash

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Rival slogans: Mr Kurz's People's Party says "now or never!", while the Social Democrats say "change with responsibility"

Austrian party leaders took part in a final TV debate on Thursday, with conservative hardliners on immigration tipped to win an election on Sunday.

The spotlight was on Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, just 31 years old, whose People's Party has a strong lead in opinion polls.

The nationalist Freedom Party and centre-left Social Democrats are neck-and-neck behind it, polls say.

Despite the differences, the debate was relaxed with some laughter.

Chancellor Christian Kern, whose Social Democrats now appear to be vying with the Freedom Party for second spot, admitted to errors in a campaign studded with mishaps and resignations.

His main rival, Mr Kurz, also comes from a long-established party but the "Whizz-kid" has reinvented it as his own "turquoise movement". He has taken ground from the Freedom Party by moving his party right – while the Freedom Party has moved left on social issues, say commentators.

For decades Austrian politics was dominated by centrists of the People's Party and Social Democrats, but observers say a new coalition between them is less likely now than a coalition between the conservatives with the Freedom Party.

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In the debate, which covered five areas selected by candidates, all three main candidates called for fewer business regulations.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The atmosphere was fairly relaxed for the debate

The Freedom Party's Heinz-Christian Strache warned of cheap labour entering the country from eastern Europe, while Greens' Ulrike Lunacek argued that the economy and environment went together.

Mr Kurz and Mr Strache sometimes echoed the same ideas, with both stressing the security threat posed by immigration but differing over the response, and both saying the children of immigrants should learn German before starting school.

During the campaign ahead of Sunday's snap election, Mr Kurz often reminded voters that he opposed the 2015 influx of irregular migrants.

Veil ban

In 2015-2016, more than a million migrants – mostly Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees – reached Germany.

Austria, on the main transit route, struggled to cope until an EU deal with Turkey drastically cut the numbers flowing through the Balkans.

As foreign minister, Mr Kurz helped to broker the new Balkan border restrictions last year that kept migrant numbers down. He backed a ban on full-face veils – burkas and niqabs – which took effect on 1 October.

Last year Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer narrowly lost the presidential election, won by ex-Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen.

The Freedom Party was launched in 1956 by ex-Nazis and enjoyed electoral success under the late Jörg Haider, who gave the party a populist, anti-EU makeover.

In 2000 Mr Haider's party joined the conservatives in government, souring relations with the EU. He died in a car crash in 2008.

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