Austria's centre-left govt looks for new leader and direction

VIENNA • Austria's centre-left government yesterday started searching for a new leader and new direction after a plunge in support, at the hand of the populist far-right, forced Chancellor Werner Faymann to quit.

Analysts said this departure might even see Mr Faymann's Social Democrats (SPOe) taking the radical and dangerous gamble of dropping its historic opposition to a tie-up with the far-right.

The SPOe and its centre-right "grand coalition" partner, the People's Party (OeVP), have dominated Austrian politics since World War II but their support has been sliding for years. In the last election, in 2013, they only just scratched together a majority, and polls suggest they will fail to do so again at the next election in 2018.

Mirroring similar trends across Europe, the centre-left has been bleeding support to fringe groups. In Austria's case, this means the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPOe) of Mr Heinz-Christian Strache who, on Monday, said Mr 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".

Tapping into unease over Europe's migrant crisis, the FPOe is leading opinion polls. On April 24, its candidate won the first round of elections for the largely ceremonial post of president. Mr Norbert Hofer, who presents himself as the friendly and reasonable face of the FPOe, will go up against Mr Alexander van der Bellen, a former head of the Greens who came in second, in a May 22 run-off.

The two ruling parties' candidates were knocked out of the race with just 11 per cent of the vote each against 35 per cent for Mr Hofer. This dismal performance, due also to a worsening economic situation and the coalition's inability to agree on reforms, means that for the first time since 1945, the president will not be from one of the two centrist parties. This could result in the new president making use of some of the head of state's considerable but hitherto unused powers, such as firing the government or dissolving Parliament.

Deputy Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, head of the OeVP, will replace Mr Faymann on an interim basis but it was unclear who would be his permanent successor as chancellor and SPOe boss.

Two possible candidates are Mr Christian Kern, head of the national railways company, and Mr Gerhard Zeiler, former chief of national broadcaster ORF. A decision may be taken at a party meeting on May 17.

"It would be good to have a new face, someone from outside the party," said Ms Karin Cvrtila from the OGM polling institute. But the tough decision will be whether to stick with the SPOe's traditional opposition to the FPOe, or to team up with it, as the party has done in the eastern state of Burgenland.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2016, with the headline 'Austria's centre-left govt looks for new leader and direction'. Print Edition | Subscribe