Austria heads for snap election as coalition shatters

Austria’s youthful foreign minister took over as leader of the country’s main conservative party on Sunday (14 May) and called for a snap parliamentary election that centre-left Chancellor Christian Kern admitted he could not prevent.

Kern’s Social Democrats (SPO) and Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) are coalition partners and have dominated Austrian politics for decades, but are now at daggers drawn.

An early election would give the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), currently leading in opinion polls, a good chance of entering national government less than a year after its candidate lost a presidential runoff.

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However, some surveys have suggested the ÖVP would leap from third to first place if the 30-year-old Kurz, who takes a tough stance on immigration, became its leader. Forming a government in Austria usually requires at least two parties.

“There will definitely … be an election, I assume in the coming autumn,” Kern told ORF TV. He had resisted the idea of a snap election, calling for the coalition to keep working until its term ends in more than a year’s time.

Hours later, the ÖVP leadership appointed Kurz as their leader and also handed him sweeping new powers including the ability to pick the party’s list of candidates for parliament.

Kurz told a news conference he would meet the chancellor on Monday and suggest they jointly propose a parliamentary election be held after the summer.

A spokeswoman for Kern said the chancellor was unaware of any meeting with Kurz on Monday.

Kurz is a star of Austrian politics and widely seen as his party’s best hope of reviving its fortunes. The previous ÖVP leader, Reinhold Mitterlehner, quit on Wednesday (12 May) after failing to stop in-fighting among his ministers.

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Kurz plans to include people from outside the ÖVP in the party’s list of candidates, which would carry his name and that of the “New People’s Party” – a striking power grab in a country of consensus-driven politics. The move also carries echoes of new French President Emmanuel Macron’s novice-heavy list of parliamentary candidates.

“We have decided that we are starting a movement, that we are relying on valued forces within the People’s Party but at the same time bringing new people on board,” Kurz told a news conference on Sunday evening, declining to provide names.

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Calling a snap election requires a majority in parliament. The FPÖ supports the idea – it and the ÖVP are three seats short of a majority.

Kern, who took over as chancellor and SPÖ leader only a year ago, accused the ÖVP and Kurz of failing to honour a commitment they made in January to a package of measures aimed at breathing new life into their coalition and eroding support for the FPÖ.

But that package failed to put an end to the squabbling that has marred the centrist coalition.

“It was the case from the first day onwards that there was a group within the ÖVP that wanted to work with us (Social Democrats) constructively … and then there were some who were less interested in this government succeeding. They have now prevailed within the ÖVP,” Kern said.

The package included a series of law-and-order measures such as a ban on Muslim face-covering veils in public places.

Kurz has made a tough line on immigration one of his hallmarks, to the point that the FPÖ has accused him of stealing its ideas.

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