Austria’s new chancellor said yesterday that his Social Democrats (SPO) prefer to keep governing with conservatives and will not sell their soul just to remain in power, but he did not rule out joining forces one day with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).
“Let’s cross that river when we come to it,” Christian Kern told his first news conference since being named chancellor last week, saying the SPO’s long-standing ban on governing with the anti-Islam, eurosceptic FPO at national level was “obsolete”.
The 50-year-old outgoing head of Austria’s state railway was sworn in later with the SPO united behind him to succeed Werner Faymann, who resigned on May 9 after the SPO’s humiliating showing in presidential elections.
The SPO heads a coalition with the conservative People’s Party (OVP), and Kern underlined that the two – which have dominated post-1945 politics in Austria – needed to tackle governing malaise that has boosted the FPO’s appeal.
The coalition has at times looked dysfunctional because of SPO-OVP feuding over policy including finances and education, and analysts say they will have to find ways to work better together until 2018 or face an early parliamentary election the FPO is likely to win, given its current lead in opinion polls.
Buoyed by public anger over the European Union’s struggle to come to grips with the migrant crisis, the FPO candidate stormed to the lead in presidential elections last month, with the decisive run-off scheduled for Sunday.
“If we don’t get it that this is our last chance, the two big parties are going to disappear,” said Kern, who grew up in a working class district of the capital Vienna and had never held elected office before.
Asked whether it was feasible for the SPO to co-govern with the far right, he took a tough line: “My plan is not to lead the SPO into opposition, the opposite is true. But at the end of the day we need an identity and for us it is absolutely unimaginable to work with parties who incite against people and minorities.”
Kern gave few details in his remarks but suggested no big changes in policy towards the influx of migrants that has tested SPO unity.
The SPO has broadly come around to the OVP demand for a harder line on immigration in a bid to outflank the FPO.
However, Kern, a former executive at power group Verbund, will have to negotiate with OVP leader Reinhold Mitterlehner, who says several conditions must be met or it will pull out of the centrist coalition government.
Kern made a name for himself as an effective manager when tens of thousands of migrants poured into Austria from Hungary in September.
His train stations were converted into refugee shelters and aid distribution centres for weeks.
Whereas countries before Austria on the main migrant route northwards through the Balkans into the heart of Europe from Greece were overwhelmed, the scene in Vienna was one of order, with well-marshalled crowds waiting on platforms for the extra trains sent to take most of them onwards to Germany.
Now the rewards are coming for Kern, who has a manner much like his dark, slim-fitting suits – sharp and business-like.
There is little doubt that he is calm under pressure.
In the middle of a live TV interview from a Vienna train station during the initial rush of migrants in September, a man came up from behind him and shouted in his ear.
Kern did not even flinch.
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