Austria’s Kern Aims to Win Back Voters From Populist Right

Updated on
  • Political establishment turns to rail executive to lead
  • Kern sworn in as chancellor by President Fischer on Tuesday

Austria’s new Chancellor Christian Kern said he’ll concentrate on winning back voters to the political center after the populist right won a surprise victory last month in the first round of the presidential election.

Kern, who was nominated to take the post by his Social Democratic Party following Werner Faymann’s abrupt resignation last week, was sworn in by the outgoing head of state, Heinz Fischer, in Vienna on Tuesday. Austria’s embattled political establishment has turned to the 50-year-old leader of the nation’s railway to try and fend off a wave of support for the anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic Freedom Party.

“If we continue like this, we only have a few more months until we completely lose the trust of the people,” Kern said of the political infighting within the coalition government. “Our plan is to nurture hope and not worries and fears.”

Faymann was the first political casualty since the European Union became engulfed last year in the region’s gravest refugee crisis since World War II. The government, made up of the Social Democratic Party and the conservative People’s Party, was broadsided in April as voters turned to the populist Freedom Party candidate to succeed Fischer as president in July, with support for the traditional parties hemorrhaging.

Presidential Ballot

That candidate, Norbert Hofer, faces Green Party-backed Alexander Van der Bellen on May 22 in the final round of voting for the mostly ceremonial post, with polls showing the race too close to call. Van der Bellen has warned that voting for Hofer could isolate Austria in Europe, with the country becoming "unrecognizable" under the Freedom Party. The nation’s president is the head of state while the chancellor heads the government.

The new chancellor, who said he’ll vote for Van der Bellen, declined to directly rule out cooperating with the Freedom Party, saying instead that the Social Democrats won’t team up with any faction that “incites against minorities.” He signaled that he could consider working with the populist party if yet-to-be-determined criteria were met.

Kern, whom the Social Democrats’ executive body also appointed party chairman, said he’ll continue seeking to stem the influx of refugees from the Middle East. After Faymann followed Chancellor Angela Merkel last year in opening his borders to asylum seekers, his government this year clamped down, triggering a cascade of border closings across the Balkan region to Greece that effectively shut off refugees’ preferred route. Measured as a percentage of the population, the Alpine country of 8.5 million took in about as many refugees as Germany last year.

Taking Over

Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, head of the People’s Party, has signaled his support for Kern to run the government. The new chancellor, who said he plans to keep the People’s Party as coalition partner and continue until the next scheduled elections in 2018, may lead his first government meeting Wednesday and speak in parliament on Thursday to begin spelling out his agenda.

The Social Democrats also on Tuesday replaced the ministers for education, the chancellery and infrastructure.

Austria’s unemployment rate, once the EU’s lowest, has grown to almost 6 percent from 4 percent in 2011, with the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund predicting a further increase next year. Kern said he wants to spur investments to bring down the country’s jobless rate.