What’s going on with Austrian politics?

Austrian cabinet
It's all change for the Austrian cabinet, pictured here in October after the last change of leadership. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP
It's all change in Austria's government, with a new Chancellor in position and several other changes in the government. Here are the key details.

Who’s the new chancellor?

Austria’s new chancellor — the sixth in five years — is former Interior Minister Karl Nehammer.

Nehammer will be sworn in on Monday at 1pm by Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen as he takes over the role from Alexander Schallenberg, who was only in position for two months having stepped in after Sebastian Kurz quit the top job amid corruption allegations.

On Thursday, Kurz said he was leaving politics altogether, prompting Schallenberg to resign too. His justification was that “the posts of chancellor and head of the [ruling conservative People’s Party, ÖVP] party should quickly be taken on by the same person”.

Nehammer became deputy chairperson of the ÖVP in 2017 and the following year became the party’s migration and integration spokesperson, before taking over the Interior Ministry in January 2020.

He has taken a tough line on immigration, for example following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, he called for “deportation centres” in countries neighbouring Afghanistan to take in Afghans deported from Europe, and said that Austria should continue carrying out deportations to Afghanistan despite many countries pausing this in light of the security situation.

On Saturday, Nehammer said: “It’s important that we have an effective government quickly, one that can start work. We have a pandemic to fight and that needs all our strength.”

Who else is in and who’s out?

Kurz’s resignation was the first of several. 

Schallenberg is returning to his former role as Foreign Minister, ousting former ambassador Michael Linhart who had only recently moved to Vienna to take up the position. It’s not yet clear what will happen to Linhart.

And Finance Minister Gernot Blümel quit both his ministerial position and his other role as head of the ÖVP in Vienna, and has been replaced by Magnus Brunner, formerly a State Secretary, as Finance Minister.

Education Minister Heinz Faßmann has also left his post (the extent to which this was voluntary isn’t clear), to be replaced by the former rector of the University of Graz, Martin Polaschek. 

Taking over Nehammer’s post in the Interior Ministry meanwhile is Gerhard Karner, a prominent figure from the Lower Austrian regional council.

Claudia Plakolm, a 26-year-old in Kurz’s old job as head of the ÖVP youth wing, joins the government as a State Secretary.

Bernhard Bonelli, Chief of Staff in the Federal Chancellory, was able to hold on to his position after Kurz’s departure, but is now likely to be succeeded by his deputy Markus Gstöttner, while Vera Regensburger was expected to become acting Chief, Standard reported. However, this had not been confirmed by the Chancellor’s office.

Why the mass resignation?

Both Kurz and Blümel, who are close political allies, gave two reasons for quitting their roles: the recent births of their children (Kurz’s first and Blümel’s second child) and the impact of ongoing corruption allegations.

Most observers believe the latter is the more significant factor, with Kurz saying he felt “hunted” and Blümel referring to death threats his family has received, and there is also speculation in Austrian media that Kurz may be leaving for a job in the private sector.

The former Finance Minister was one of the most high-profile targets in the Ibizagate scandal and had his home raided in February 2021 over alleged donations from a gambling company to the ÖVP.

And Kurz is suspected of involvement in corruption linked to his party allegedly using taxpayers money to pay pollsters and media figures in return for positive media coverage.

READ ALSO: Who’s who? The key players in Austrian politics

Why all this chopping and changing in general?

As we mentioned, Nehammer becomes Austria’s sixth chancellor in five years, and on top of that, you need to remember Sebastian Kurz had two stints in the role as head of two different coalition governments.

Like many European political systems, the proportional representation system makes it unlikely for a single party to win a straight majority in Austria.

In post-war Austria, the political landscape has mostly been dominated by the centre-left SPÖ and conservative ÖVP, either governing alone, in a grand coalition, or since the 1980s occasionally in coalition with the far-right FPÖ (which, around this time, changed its strategy to position itself a populist anti-establishment party).

Since the late 20th century, support of the two major parties has dwindled, giving more influence to the FPÖ (today the third largest parties and one of Europe’s most successful populist parties on the right), the Greens, and the youngest party NEOS, and making more political constellations possible.

Austrian politics has also been rocked over the past few years with some fairly significant corruption scandals, including the two that implicated Kurz and Blümel.

What next for Austrian politics?

Alongside managing the pandemic, a key priority for the new leader will be the ÖVP’s current coalition with the Green Party, which has been troubled.

The relationship was troubled not least due to the parties’ differing views on migration, and the Greens eventually forced Kurz’s exit from the Chancellor role by threatening to quit the coalition.

On a party level, the new Chancellor and ÖVP boss will need to recover the party’s reputation in the wake of the corruption scandals.

The next general election in Austria is currently scheduled for 2024, but that depends on the coalition surviving that long.


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