Can Austria find a ‘pragmatic’ chancellor to replace Faymann?
Austria’s next government could have a strong participation from the anti-immigration and eurosceptic Freedom Party (FPO), after centre-left Social Democrat (SPO) Chancellor Werner Faymann quit on Monday, following a poor performance in the presidential elections of the two main parties that have ruled the country since the end of WWII.
Faymann had been under pressure from within his party over tough asylum policy rules and from others for wanting to keep a ban on forming coalitions with the FPO, which is leading opinion polls.
But with Faymann gone and the SPO and their coalition partners since 2008, the centre-right People’s Party (OVP), trailing in the polls the taboo of cooperation with the farright may be broken, experts said.
“It’s not going to happen overnight, but the party has to agree a common position on the main issue facing it: how to deal with the FPO,” said Karin Cvrtila from the OGM polling institute, according to the EU news and policy site Euractiv.
“It needs to leave open the option of working with someone else because right now combining with the OVP won’t be enough.”
Such a move has been backed by former chancellor Franz Vranitzky, as the two parties are already in coalition in the eastern region of Burgenland and elsewhere at local level.
Political analyst Anton Pelinka from Innsbruck University said, however, that flirting with the FPO could be “very dangerous”, potentially tearing the party apart and driving voters towards the Greens.
History also serves as a warning. When in 2000, the OVP formed a government with the FPO under the late Jorg Haider, the result was Austria being ostracised in Europe.
The EU has imposed sanctions only once against a member state. In 2000, 14 countries of the then 15-member EU reacted to the entrance of Haider’s far-right Austrian Freedom Party into the Austrian government by freezing bilateral relations with the country.
No contacts or ambassadorial meetings at an intergovernmental level were held and Austrian candidates were not supported when EU international offices were assigned.
The sanctions were imposed in February 2000 and lifted seven months later when Haider stepped aside as party leader. He died in a car accident in 2008.
France, Belgium and Germany led the campaign to ostracise Vienna. This was seen largely to result from domestic political sensitivities to the far right. ThenPresident Jacques Chirac of France sought to oppose the country’s Front National and Belgium faced pressure from the separatist Vlaams Blok.
By contrast, Italy and Denmark urged for the sanctions.
The two centrist parties, SPO and OVP, have dominated Austrian politics since World War II but the writing has long been on the wall, only just managing to scratch together a
lifting of majority at the last elections in 2013, the Euractive report said.
Like elsewhere in Europe, support to fringe groups, in immigration FPO after almost a through Austria last year.
Also hitting support has been rising unemployment – Austria no longer has the lowest job rate in the European Union – and the coalition’s inability to agree reforms.
Ahead of the next general election due in 2018, the FPO is leading opinion polls with more than 30% of the vote, with the SPO and the OVP jointly below.
Two weeks ago, in a severe blow to Faymann, candidates from the two centrist parties were knocked out of the first round of elections for the largely ceremonial post of president.
Scoring a dismal 11% of the vote each, it meant that for the first time since 1945, Austria will not have a head of state from either of these two parties.
Instead, the May 22 runoff will be between the FPO’s Norbert Hofer, 45, who presents a friendly and moderate FPO face, and Alexander van der Bellen, 72, a professorial former head of the Greens.
Ahead of a June 25 party congress, the SPO leadership is due to decide at a meeting on May 17 but the Austria Press Agency reported that a preliminary decision could come as soon as Friday.
Media reports said the frontrunner is Christian Kern, head of the national railways company, followed by Gerhard Zeiler, they have been bleeding particular to the antimillion migrants passed former chief of national broadcaster ORF.
Both men “stand more for pragmatic and pro-business course,” the Der Standard daily said.
This would also go down well with the OVP, which wants the coalition to show a renewed focus on economic reforms and no change to Austria’s new hardline migrants policy.
But at the same time, this could rankle with the leftist wing of the SPO, particularly if the new leader decides the party should embrace FPO of Heinz-Christian Strache.
The SPO suffered a major defeat last month in first-round voting for the next president when both parties scraped together just 23%.
The FPO candidate, running on an anti-Islam and eurosceptic platform, won more than a third of the votes, sending him into a run-off for the largely ceremonial role with a former Green Party leader on May 22.
The FPO regularly attracts more than 30% polls, well ahead of the two ruling parties.
Austria got around 90,000 asylum requests in 2015 after large numbers of migrants and refugees, many fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, arrived in the staunchly Roman Catholic country of 8.5 mln people.
Under Faymann, the country has put in jeopardy the efforts of the European Commission to find a common solution to the unprecedented migrant crisis. Austria announced that it would cap the number of people allowed to claim asylum this year, and that it would send excess refugees back, or deport them to the neighbouring countries through which they came.