Austrian chancellor quits after far-right triumph

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann listens during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, on May 3, 2016.
Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann listens during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, on May 3, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

VIENNA (AFP) - Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann quit Monday (May 9), bowing to intense pressure two weeks after the opposition anti-immigration far-right dealt his coalition a historic defeat in the first round of presidential elections.

The centre-left Faymann, 56, chancellor for the past eight years, said in a statement that he no longer had "strong backing" in his party, the Social Democrats (SPOe).

"As a result of this insufficient support I am drawing the consequences and resign my functions as party leader and chancellor, effective today," he said.

The SPOe and its coalition partner since 2008, the centre-right People's Party (OeVP), have dominated Austrian politics since World War II but their support has been sliding in recent years.

At the last general election, in 2013, they only just scratched together a majority, and polls suggest doing so again at the next scheduled vote in 2018 will be difficult.

Mirroring similar trends across Europe, the two main parties have been bleeding support to fringe groups, in Austria's case in particular to the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), the former party of the controversial, late Joerg Haider.

The far-right has tapped into growing unease about immigration after Austria last year saw 90,000 people claim asylum, and around 10 times that number pass through at the high point of Europe's migrant crisis.

But the two parties have also presided over a rise in unemployment, with Austria losing its crown as the EU member with the lowest unemployment. The coalition has also squabbled over structural reforms.

The FPOe is leading national opinion polls and on April 24, in the first round of elections to the largely ceremonial post of president, the FPOe's Norbert Hofer came a clear first with 35 percent of the vote.

Hofer, 45, who presents himself as the friendly and reasonable face of the FPOe, will now face Alexander van der Bellen, a former head of the Greens who came second, in a runoff on May 22.

The two candidates from the ruling coalition parties were relegated into distant fourth and fifth places, failing to make it through to the runoff with just 11 per cent of the vote each.

This historic failure means that for the first time since 1945, there will not be a president from within these two parties in Vienna's Hofburg palace.

This in turn could mean that the new president might make use of some of the considerable powers afforded to the head of state under Austria's constitution, powers which until now have been not been used.

In theory the Austrian president can fire the government - as Hofer has threatened to do if elected - or dissolve parliament. Van der Bellen has said he would not appoint an FPOe-led government.

Deputy Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, from the OeVP, will replace Faymann on an interim basis but it was unclear who would be his permanent successor.

Christian Kern, currently the head of the national railways company, and Gerhard Zeiler, former chief of national broadcaster ORF, have been touted as possible replacements.

The popular mayor of Vienna, Michael Haeupl, will take over from Faymann on an interim basis as party chief, saying the SPOe needed a "period of reflection".

The party's central committee was due to meet later on Monday and could choose a successor then.

FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache said that it was "more than doubtful whether a party (the SPOe) acting as chaotically as this is capable of governing Austria at such a time of crisis".

He said Faymann's resignation "does not solve the SPOe's basic problem, which is its utterly wrong policies (decided) over the heads of people and against Austria's interests".

Julia Herr, head of the SPOe's youth wing, which booed Faymann at a recent event, said the party needed to "re-establish itself both in terms of content and organisation" and must "credibly stand on the side of working people again".