New Austrian centre-left chancellor will not rule out ties to far-right

Christian Kern [L]. [Photo Service of the Federal Chancellery]

Austria’s new Chancellor Christian Kern said yesterday (17 May) his Social Democrats (SPO) would prefer to keep governing with conservatives and will not sell their souls just to remain in power, but he did not rule out joining forces one day with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

“Let’s cross that river when we come to it,” Kern told his first news conference since being named chancellor last week, saying the SPO’s long-standing ban on governing with the anti-Islam, eurosceptic FPO at national level was “obsolete”.

The 50-year-old outgoing head of Austria’s state railway was sworn in later on Tuesday with the SPO united behind him to succeed Werner Faymann, who resigned on 9 May after the SPO’s humiliating showing in presidential elections.

Christian Kern to become Austria's chancellor

The head of Austria’s rail operator, Christian Kern, is set to become the country’s next chancellor after the other main contender for the post of Social Democratic Party (SPO) leader pulled out of the race and said the whole party backed him.

Austrian PM Faymann steps down

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann today (9 May) stepped down as leader of the centrist coalition government and as head of his Social Democratic Party (SPO), two weeks after the SPO suffered a disastrous result in presidential elections.

The SPO heads a coalition with the conservative People’s Party (OVP), and Kern underlined that the two, which have dominated post-1945 politics in Austria, needed to tackle governing malaise that has boosted the FPO’s appeal.

“At the end of the day we need an identity and for us it is absolutely unimaginable to work with parties who incite against people and minorities,” Kern told journalists.

When asked in an interview with broadcaster ORF whether the FPO was such a party, Kern said he currently did not view the FPO as a potential coalition partner on the national level due to their “rhetoric escalation”.

“It’s a long way to go before we could think about joining forces,” Kern said.

The ruling coalition has at times looked dysfunctional because of SPO-OVP feuding over policy including finances and education, and analysts have said they would have to find ways to work better together until 2018 or face an early parliamentary election the FPO was likely to win, given its current lead in opinion polls.

Buoyed by public anger over the European Union’s struggle to come to grips with the migrant crisis, the FPO candidate Norbert Hofer stormed to the lead in presidential elections last month, with the decisive run-off scheduled for Sunday.

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Austria’s government was licking its wounds after a historic debacle that saw the opposition anti-immigrant far-right triumph yesterday (24 April) in a presidential ballot two years before the next scheduled general election.

“If we don’t get it that this is our last chance, the two big parties are going to disappear,” said Kern, who grew up in a working class district of the capital Vienna and had never before held elected office.

Tough asylum policies

Kern, a former executive at power group Verbund, will have to negotiate with OVP leader Reinhold Mitterlehner, who has made keeping the coalition’s tough line on immigration a condition for the centrist coalition government to survive.

Kern suggested no big changes in policy towards the influx of migrants that has tested SPO unity, including capping the number of asylum requests Austria accepts this year at 37,500, which has been widely criticised by rights groups.

Austria introduces cap on refugees, will deport ‘surplus’

The Austrian government announced yesterday (20 January) that it would cap the number of people allowed to claim asylum this year, and that it would send excess refugees back, or deport them to the neighbouring countries through which they came.

Austria buries hope for EU response to refugee crisis

Tensions reached a boiling point between the European states worst affected by the refugee crisis ahead of a meeting of Balkan states in Vienna today (24 February), as new figures showed no let-up in the influx of asylum seekers.

The SPO has broadly come around to the OVP demand for a harder line on immigration in a bid to outflank the FPO and Kern told broadcaster ORF he stood by the coalition’s asylum policies.

The EU has imposed sanctions only once against a member state. In 2000, 14 countries of the then 15-member EU reacted to the entrance of Jörg Haider's far-right Austrian Freedom Party into the Austrian government by freezing bilateral relations with the country.

No contacts or ambassadorial meetings at an intergovernmental level were held and Austrian candidates were not supported when EU international offices were assigned.

The sanctions were imposed in February 2000 and lifted seven months later when Haider stepped aside as party leader. He died in a car accident in 2008.

France, Belgium and Germany led the campaign to ostracise Vienna. This was seen largely to result from domestic political sensitivities to the far right. Then-President Jacques Chirac of France sought to oppose the country's Front National and Belgium faced pressure from the separatist Vlaams Blok.

By contrast, Italy and Denmark urged the lifting of sanctions.

  • 22 May: Second round of the presidential election.

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