Kern Pledges New Deal for Austria to Win Back Populist Voters

  • Chancellor pledges 200,000 jobs, TTIP veto, tax justice
  • Freedom Party riding high ahead of October presidential vote

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said he’ll create 200,000 jobs, oppose trade agreements with the U.S. and Canada and fight tax breaks for U.S. companies as his government seeks to win back voters from the populist Freedom Party.

Kern, a Social Democrat who took office in May, used his first major television interview to pledge a “new deal” to cut unemployment, promote vocational training for young people and develop more jobs for people around age 60 and older. The package, to be drafted over the next few months, will include income-tax cuts and incentives for companies that create jobs, Kern, a former Austrian railroad executive, told national public broadcaster ORF.

“If you boil down the project of Europe to the market economy and the single market, and lose sight of the fact that we promised the people welfare and security 60 years ago, then the EU is doomed to fail,” Kern said. “It’s our job to say that it’s got to become a project of the people again, and not of the large corporations.”

Kern is trying to change the conversation as voters ditch Austria’s post-World War II mainstream factions for the anti-immigration Freedom Party, which polls suggest would win the most votes if elections were held now. Freedom candidate Norbert Hofer, the front-runner in Austria’s presidential election scheduled for Oct. 2, may become Europe’s first far-right head of state since the war.

Austria’s unemployment rate was among the lowest in the euro area as recently as five years ago, when it was at 4 percent, 1.7 percentage points lower than Germany’s. It’s now risen to 6 percent, compared with Germany’s 4.2 percent in July, according to Eurostat. Economic growth has fallen behind, with the central bank cutting its 2016 forecast to 1.4 percent, while Germany, the main buyer of Austrian exports, is set to grow by 1.7 percent.

With the Social Democrats and their People’s Party coalition partner struggling in the polls, Kern is edging toward themes pushed by the Freedom Party. He’s stuck to Austria’s cap on refugees, opposes European Union membership for Turkey citing the country’s worsening democratic scorecard. He praised the EU for tackling Apple Inc.’s tax bill and promised to veto the EU’s planned free trade deals known as CETA and TTIP, arguing that they’re too favorable to big corporations.

At home, “the goal is to create full employment by 2020. That’s a great goal, but you have to set yourself goals with such a scope,” he said.

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