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Christian Kern: no more normal service

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Christian Kern: no more normal service
Christian Kern, standing behind former chancellor Werner Faymann. Photo: Facebook/Vita Jugend
17:46 CEST+02:00
Christian Kern, set to be Austria's new chancellor, fixed the national rail company. Now he has to get the government and his party back on track -- and put the brakes on the far-right.

With his humble beginnings and business experience, snappy dresser Kern, who will be formally appointed on May 17, has on paper impeccable credentials for a chancellor from Austria's Social Democrats (SPÖ).

He grew up the son of an electrician and a secretary in the working-class Vienna district of Simmering.

Following a short stint in journalism after university, Kern joined the SPÖ and quickly moved up the ranks, working, still in his 20s, in the government of Franz Vranitzky.

In 1997, however, he moved out of politics to Austria's biggest electricity company Verbund where his rise was equally meteoric, joining the management board a decade later.

By then, his working class accent was gone, talking, according to the Austria Press Agency, "as if he had grown up in Schoenbrunn Palace" -- the former imperial summer residence in west Vienna.

In 2010 came his appointment as head of Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB), where he really shone, becoming popular with staff, customers and his bosses in government alike.

He put ÖBB's finances back in order, put a stop to mass early retirements, finished Vienna's smart new main train station on time -- and within budget -- and got on well with the unions.

"He was the first ÖBB boss to really stand by his workers," Roman Hebenstreit of the ÖBB works council said Friday.

"I've had to wipe a few tears away and comfort employees with the thought that it's not the end of the world that the boss is becoming chancellor."

No more normal service

Last year Kern successfully managed the transport of immense numbers of migrants transiting through Austria at the height of Europe's refugee crisis.

"This is not the time for normal service," the father-of-four said.

At the time, Austria, like Germany, was welcoming the floods of refugees with open arms.

But the mood has since changed, boosting the populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) at the expense of the SPÖ and its coalition partners, the centre-right People's Party (ÖVP).

The bill came last month when the FPÖ's candidate won the first round of elections hands down -- the runoff is May 22 -- for the largely ceremonial post of Austrian president.

This was the final straw for Chancellor Werner Faymann, who quit on May 9. Eight days earlier, at traditional left-wing rallies on May Day, he was booed.


New chancellor Christian Kern (SPÖ). Photo: ÖBB/Sabine Hauswirth

Herculean task

But it remains to be seen whether Kern has what it takes to repair the deep rifts within the party, jumpstart the moribund ruling coalition and counter the rise of the far-right.

"The task before him is Herculean," political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP.

Helping him though is his youth -- he posted on Facebook photos of a rock concert he attended the night Faymann resigned -- and the fact that he is seen as coming from outside the political establishment.

Until now, Kern has kept quiet on his political beliefs, but sooner or later he will have to get off the fence, potentially alienating different SPÖ factions.

He will, Hofer believes, turn out to be something in the mould of former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder or Britain's Tony Blair, marrying pro-business policies with a social conscience.

Lurch to the left

"The lurch to the left demanded by the SPÖ youth wing, for example, he will not do," Hofer said. "He will be a pragmatist".

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

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

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

FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache said that Kern's performance at the railways company during the migrant crisis "showed that he actively supported Faymann's people-smuggling policy."

"If Kern really wants to end the paralysis and the glaring deficits that this country is suffering from, then he should clear the way for new elections," Strache said.

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