Can Aus­tria find a ‘prag­matic’ chan­cel­lor to re­place Fay­mann?

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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