01 January 2020, Austria, Vienna: Sebastian Kurz (L), leader of the Austrian People's Party (OeVP) and Werner Kogler, leader of The Greens, hold a joint press conference at the Winter Palace of Prince Eugene after reaching a coalition deal. Photo: Herbert Neubauer/APA/dpa
Sebastian Kurz, left, and Werner Kogler announce their coalition pact on Wednesday in Vienna © Herbert Neubauer/APA/dpa

Austria’s Sebastian Kurz is to return to the chancellorship as the youngest head of government after his conservative People’s party hammered out the policy platform for its coalition with the country’s resurgent Green party.

The People’s party, which won 37.5 per cent of the vote in September’s snap election, and the Greens, who surged to 13.9 per cent, agreed to form a government on Wednesday.

The coalition’s legislative agenda — combining fiscal restraint and tax cuts with environmental schemes and hardline immigration policies — was unveiled on Thursday. 

The policies show Mr Kurz has stuck to his core pitch to Austrian voters: a hardline stance on immigration glossed with slick branding, and a break with the long tradition of centrist, consensus government. 

“[Immigration] will stay at the heart of my policy,” Mr Kurz said.

The coalition plans include a continuation of a ban on headscarves in schools for girls under the age of 14, as well a promise to crack down on political Islam. 

The coalition deal brings the Greens into power for the first time and, at least on paper, represents a volte-face for Mr Kurz, whose first term in office, cut short by scandal in May, was won through an alliance with the far-right. 

Negotiations between the two parties, whose policy platforms differ wildly in some areas, have continued for weeks. Those close to the talks said the unconventional deal had been built in no small part on the unexpected personal rapport between 33-year-old Mr Kurz and Werner Kogler, the 58-year-old leader of the Greens. The latter will become vice-chancellor.

The Greens are set to take control of an expanded environment ministry that will take on responsibility for energy policy and transport. Mr Kogler has also secured a clutch of environmental commitments, including a programme to fit 1m homes with solar panels and a broad promise to take an environmental approach to the country’s tax system and “make flying more expensive”. The Greens have also secured a commitment to reduce public transport costs with a fixed low tariff system. 

The coalition proposal still has to be approved by a formal vote from the Green party membership, in a conference scheduled for Saturday.

Many Greens are likely to be uneasy about the deal, particularly those in the party’s more leftwing — and most powerful — faction, the Vienna branch, which will this year have to fight the People’s party in the city’s municipal elections. 

Mr Kurz and Mr Kogler were both keen to emphasise that the new government would be committed to transparency: the coalition has pledged to introduce a freedom of information law and to clear up Austria’s murky political financing laws. Both measures are likely to contain potential political traps for Mr Kurz, whose last government fell amid a spectacular political funding scandal, the full extent of which has yet to be fully revealed. 

Mr Kurz’s former coalition partner, the far-right populist Freedom party, was the big loser in September’s elections as a direct result. A lurid scandal in which the party’s former leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was filmed soliciting illicit funding from Russia, was responsible for his ousting as vice-chancellor in May.

Months of further revelations about the party’s funding and remuneration for senior figures have eroded its once strong base, with many conservative voters turning to Mr Kurz as a figure of stability and responsibility. 

Mr Kurz’s People’s party has remained relatively unscathed but many question whether it can extricate itself entirely from the mess. 

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