The problem that has driven them apart? Ibiza-gate, a scandal that brought down Kurz’s government earlier this year after the leaking of secret videos showing the former Freedom Party head, his coalition partner, apparently promising lucrative government contracts to a Russian heiress.
Kurz, who was the youngest elected world leader when the scandal forced him to call snap elections, appears to have weathered the storm well. His party has won 38 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results published by the Austria Press Agency, which excludes absentee ballots. That would be an increase of almost 6 percent since elections in 2017, although he will still need to form a coalition to govern.
What remains unclear is whether he will team up again with the Freedom Party after a campaign that has focused more on personality politics than on policy. The country of 8.8 million has been run by a nonpartisan caretaker government since June.
Partial results showed the Freedom Party suffering a sizable blow, dropping to 17 percent of the vote. The Greens were predicted to win 12 percent, and the liberal Neos 7 percent. The Social Democrats, the longtime coalition partner of the People’s Party before the current leadership changed tack, won just over 22 percent.
The Freedom Party’s decline could make Kurz more likely to look elsewhere for a coalition, a move that would strike a symbolic blow to the far right in Europe.
Politically, the Freedom Party would appear to be a natural ally. It was by adopting a hard line on immigration — an issue that topped the agenda in Austria following the 2015 migrant crisis — that Kurz managed to turn around the fortunes of his People’s Party and become chancellor in 2017.
Kurz’s strategy has been watched with interest by conservative parties across Europe that are losing votes to the more extreme fringes. He had taken a hard line on immigration, crediting himself with closing off one of the main routes for refugees flowing into Europe, but his government had maintained a pro-European Union agenda.
But in the wake of the Ibiza scandal, and when issues such as climate change jostle with immigration to top voter concerns, analysts say Kurz might look elsewhere to build his ruling coalition. Kurz, the right’s golden boy, has refrained from ruling out any coalition option during campaigning.
The options open to him are like choosing between “the plague, cholera and Ebola,” said Austrian political analyst Thomas Hofer, who is no relation to the head of the Freedom Party, Norbert Hofer. A tie-up with the Freedom Party would be easy, but Kurz is looking for stability and will want to avoid another snap election.
The Freedom Party “is practically begging” Kurz for a coalition, the analyst said, but no matter how close they are in terms of agenda, the Freedom Party’s upheaval reduces the likelihood that Kurz will continue the alliance.
There has even been a new scandal swirling around the right-wing party, with accusations that Heinz-Christian Strache, its longtime leader who stepped down in May after the Ibiza scandal emerged, misused party funds.
Kurz may opt for an about-face and look to form a government with the Greens and Liberals, Thomas Hofer said, though issues such as immigration policy could prove sticking points.
The third option would be a return to a coalition with the Social Democrats, a longtime coalition partner that Kurz turned his back on. The Social Democrats are vying for second place in the elections.
Negotiations over coalition building could be lengthy.
“Kurz must ask himself the question whether he considers the Freedom Party to be capable of governing again and if he wants to take the risk,” said Peter Filzmaier, a politics professor at the University of Krems.
Kurz is likely to have picked up votes from the Freedom Party, whose former supporters have “no other choice” but Kurz, Filzmaier said.
A different coalition “would send a message to other European countries, to other conservative parties,” he said.
Luisa Beck contributed to this report.