Christian Kern to be new Austrian chancellor: party boss

CEO of the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) Christian Kern during a press conference in Vienna, on Jan 31, 2014.
CEO of the Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) Christian Kern during a press conference in Vienna, on Jan 31, 2014.PHOTO: AFP

VIENNA (AFP) - Austria's Social Democrats (SPO) have decided to appoint national railways boss Christian Kern as the country's chancellor following Mr Werner Faymann's resignation, the interim head of the party said on Friday (May 13).

"The decision has been taken," the Austria Press Agency quoted Mr Michael Haeupl as saying. He added that a formal decision will be taken on Tuesday by the party's directorate.

Mr Faymann, 56, quit on Monday (May 9), two weeks after a humiliating defeat in the first round of an election for the largely ceremonial post of president at the hands of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

Mirroring similar developments across Europe, the SPO and its centre-right coalition partner the People's Party (OVP) have been bleeding support to fringe groups, especially the FPO.

They only just managed to scratch together a majority at the last general election in 2013 and opinion polls suggest that when Austrians go to the polls again in 2018 - or sooner - they will fall short.

Mr Faymann took a harder line on migrants in recent months, but this failed to boost his support and alienated many in the SPO, particularly those in the left wing of the party.

The final straw was the first round of the presidential election on April 24 when the FPO's Norbert Hofer scored 35 per cent and the main parties' candidates won a dismal 11 per cent each.

This meant that for the first time since 1945, Austria will not have a head of state from either of these two parties.

Mr Hofer, 45, portrayed as a friendly face of the FPO, will take on Mr Alexander van der Bellen, 72, the professorial former head of the Greens, in a runoff on May 22.

Snappy dresser Kern, 50, grew up in a working class district of Vienna as the son of an electrician and a secretary.

He joined the SPO when he was young, moving up the ranks before moving to an energy firm in 1997 and joining its management board in 2007. Three years later he switched to national railways company OBB.

There, he is widely credited with achieving a turnaround and with successfully managing the transport of immense numbers of migrants transiting through in 2015.

"This is not the time for normal service," the father of four said in September at the height of the crisis.

"Kern is someone who got things going... He was the first OBB boss to really stand by his workers," Mr Roman Hebenstreit of the OBB works council said on Friday.

"He is a natural-born striker... Under him OBB's motto was 'Now things are moving'. Following this wouldn't do the government any harm," Mr Hebenstreit told public radio.

But whether Mr Kern can heal rifts within the SPO remains to be seen. His positions on key policy areas are vague, although he is thought to lean more to the right on economic issues.

His biggest headache will be to decide whether to ditch the SPO's 30-year-old taboo on cooperating with the FPO, dating back to when the late, controversial Joerg Haider became leader of the right-wing party.

There have been growing calls within the centre-left to tie up with the FPO, at least at local level. Others though, including the SPO's youth wing, vigorously oppose this.

Mr Kern also needs to revitalise the SPO's deadlocked coalition with the OVP and agree structural reforms to get Austria's economy, faltering of late, moving again.

OVP head Reinhold Mitterlehner praised Mr Kern's "management qualities" in an interview published on Friday, but said that this was "the much-quoted last chance" for the coalition.

"The task before him in Herculean," political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP, saying he expected Mr Kern will be a "pragmatist" with regard to the far-right and in other areas.