• Austria's news in English
Austria swears in new chancellor as far-right looms
ÖBB Sabine Hauswirth

Austria swears in new chancellor as far-right looms

The Local/AFP · 17 May 2016, 12:56

Published: 17 May 2016 12:56 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

The 50-year-old, renowned for his glowing business achievements and snappy dress sense, is due to be sworn in by President Heinz Fischer at 1500 GMT. 

Kern replaces fellow Social Democrat Werner Faymann of the SPÖ party who threw in the towel on May 9 after a string of poor election results.

The new leader faces the major challenge of uniting a fractious SPÖ and smoothing over tensions with its coalition partner, the conservative People's Party (ÖVP).

He also has to convince Austrians unhappy about the arrival of migrants and rising unemployment to vote for his party at the next scheduled elections in 2018.

"The task before Kern is Herculean," political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP in a recent interview.

Headaches await

Kern's appointment comes days before a presidential runoff vote, pitching Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) against the Green-backed candidate Alexander van der Bellen on May 22.

In the first round last month, Hofer comfortably beat his rival by 35 percent to 21 percent.

Meanwhile the SPÖ and ÖVP were knocked out of the race with just 11 percent. The dismal performance means that for the first time since 1945, the president will not come from one of the two main parties.

This heralds the risk of the new head of state taking advantage of some of the president's never-before-used powers, such as firing the government.

Mirroring trends elsewhere in Europe, Austria's main parties have been losing voters for years while the FPÖ now consistently scores more than 30 percent in opinion polls.

This means the SPÖ and ÖVP could fall short of being able in 2018 to re-form their "grand coalition". In the last election three years ago, they only just scratched together a majority.

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 Joerg Haider became leader of the right-wing party.

He also needs to revitalise the SPÖ's deadlocked coalition with the ÖVP and agree structural reforms to get Austria's economy, faltering of late, moving again.

'Glaring deficits'

Kern, dubbed a "pinstripes socialist" by German broadcaster ARD, grew up in a working class district of Vienna as the son of an electrician and a secretary.

Story continues below…

He joined the SPÖ when he was young, climbing up the ranks before moving to an energy firm in 1997 and to national railways company ÖBB in 2010. There, the father-of-four is widely credited with a turnaround and successfully managing the transport of immense numbers of migrants transiting through Austria in 2015.

"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," Roman Hebenstreit of the ÖBB works council said when news of Kern's appointment broke last Friday.

But whether Kern can heal the SPÖ 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.

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 last week.

For more news from Austria, join us on Facebook and Twitter.

The Local/AFP (news.austria@thelocal.com)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Today's headlines
Radioactive uranium rocks on display in Austrian schools
Uraninite crystals. Photo: Rob Lavinsky, iRocks.com/Wikimedia

Education officials have carried out urgent checks in schools across the country after one of the stones on display in a classroom turned out to be radioactive.

Austrian churches slam far-right's 'God' slogan
Campaign poster for Norbert Hofer. Photo: Paul Gillingwater

Austrian church officials have denounced far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer for "instrumentalising" God in a new slogan.

'Scary clown' pushes 14-year-old off his bike in Salzburg
Generic photo: Graeme Maclean/Flick

A 14-year-old boy in Salzburg has been injured after being pushed off his bike by an individual dressed as a scary clown.

Police puzzled by random stabbing of teenager in Vienna
Photo: Paul Gillingwater

A 15-year-old boy who was stabbed near his home in the Vienna district of Liesing on Friday morning by a complete stranger has spoken to the police.

'Sensational' 300-year-old Madonna found in Burgenland
The head of the statue was found beside the body. Photo: ORF

A 300-year-old statue of the Virgin Mary has been found hidden in a chapel next to a Catholic church in Loretto, Burgenland.

Baumgartner 'failed to mention Red Bull' before jumping to Earth
Felix Baumgartner. Photo: Red Bull Stratos

Felix Baumgartner has been accused of cheating his Red Bull sponsors after he failed to mention the energy drink just before he jumped to Earth.

Verdict on swimming pool rape case overturned
The Theresienbad swimming pool in Vienna. Photo: Wikimedia

An Iraqi refugee who was jailed after claiming it was a sexual emergency when he raped a boy in a swimming pool has had the sentence overturned.

Vienna Comic Con promises to be 'bigger and more galactic'
Cosplay star Yaya Han. Copyright: Yaya Han/Bryan Humphrey

Comic Con returns to the Austrian capital on November 19th-20th at the Messe Wien.

Three refugees arrested on drugs charges
Cannabis plants. Photo: J. Patrick Bedell/Wikimedia

A gang of three Afghani drug dealers has been busted in Vienna.

Hungarian woman crushed by snowcat piste machine
Snowcat machine. Photo: Melensdad/Wikimedia

A young Hungarian woman has died after being crushed by a snowcat piste machine on the Dobratsch mountain in Carinthia.

12 brilliant German words you won't find in English
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Five films which will change your mind about Austrian cinema
Those surprising Austrians!
100 years since the last emperor's death
Afghani family's new home in Austria
Der you learn Deutsch?
Delighted by the light
Beware these passport scams
Of course we skipped Oarsch
Foodies rejoice at the choice!
Travel & Tourism
10 years after her escape from captivity
Surviving the Brexit for British expats
Day 2 of the World Bodypainting Festival 2016
Is Islam hostile to Western society?
Bodypainting festival in southern Austria
Europe's ice cream capital
Best Austrian beauty spots
Travel & Tourism
Three days in Vienna as a tourist
How to make friends in Austria
jobs available