Austrian parties in election TV clash

Austrian parties in election TV clash

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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.

Mr Kurz argued for a ban on full Muslim veils and cuts in migrants’ benefits.

The ban on full-face veils – burkas and niqabs – took effect on 1 October.

All the main election rivals were involved in the debate.

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 government involving the conservatives with the Freedom Party.

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

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.

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As foreign minister, Mr Kurz helped to broker the new Balkan border restrictions last year that kept migrant numbers down.

His tough stance on immigration appears to have drawn many nationalist supporters.

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 and the party’s current leader is Heinz-Christian Strache.

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