2017-05-15 13:46:14 UTC
NEW EU NIGHTMARE: Brussels faces another populist test as Austria heads for early election
BRUSSELS is facing yet another populist nightmare with the collapse of Austria’s coalition government sparking an early general election later this year.
By Nick Gutteridge, Brussels Correspondent
PUBLISHED: 09:06, Mon, May 15, 2017
Voters will head to the ballot box with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO)currently leading the polls as the battered EU has to prepare itself for another nail biting campaign.
The bloc had recently stabilised with victories over populists in the Netherlands and France and had just the German election, which pits to pro-EU candidates against each other, to contend with this year.
But now it faces a new fly in its ointment with the developments in highly eurosceptic Austria, which came within a whisker of voting in a far-right president earlier this year.
The country is now being led by foreign minister, Sebastian Kurz, who has taken over control of the centre-right People’s Party (OVP) after a coalition with chancellor Christian Kern’s left-wing Social Democrats (SPO) collapsed.
Austrian leaders had initially tried to resist calling a contest to give the EU some much needed breathing space, hoping the coalition could limp on, but have now admitted that stance is futile.
Mr Kern admitted there will now “definitely” be an early general election this year - probably in the autumn - something which analysts say is likely to play into the hands of the anti-immigration, anti-EU FPO.
In recent opinion polls the far-right party, which has historic links to the Nazis, has been leading by as much as five per cent over its rivals, with the Social Democrats second and the OVP languishing in third.
However, recent surveys have indicated that if Mr Kurz, a youthful politician with a virulent anti-immigration stance, leads the People’s Party into the election campaign it could quickly leap into the lead.
The 30-year-old is a star of Austrian politics who is widely seen as his party’s best hope of reviving its fortunes and has been compared to Emmanuel Macron in style, although the men hold very different views.
He plans to follow the Frenchman’s lead by drawing in talent from all political backgrounds to stand as MPs and will even rename his movement as the “New People’s Party” in a break with the past.
Christian Kern wants Austria exempt from accepting more migrants
Mr Kurz said: “We have decided that we are starting a movement, that we are relying on valued forces within the People’s Party but at the same time bringing new people on board.”
His elevation came when the previous ÖVP leader, Reinhold Mitterlehner, quit last week after failing to stop in-fighting among his ministers which had rendered the Government effectively paralysed.
And his record in Government was immediately targeted by the FPO upon the announcement of a new election, with the far-right party saying he “has been responsible for years of stagnation, strife and anti-Austrian policy”.
In a statement general secretary Herbert Kickl added: “New elections are the cleanest solution to end the unacceptable permanent construction site called the Federal Government.
“The upcoming election is a huge opportunity to reject the double play of SPÖ and ÖVP and establish a new political culture of continuity, reliability and honest citizenship in Austria.”
Mr Kern, who took over as chancellor and SPÖ leader only a year ago, blamed his coalition rivals for refusing to properly support a package of reforms which would have saved the struggling administration.
He raged: “It was the case from the first day onwards that there was a group within the ÖVP that wanted to work with us constructively.
“And then there were some who were less interested in this government succeeding. They have now prevailed within the ÖVP.”
The Austrian election could now take place at around the same time as the contest in neighbouring Germany, which is expected to be a more cut and dried affair with Angela Merkel heading for a fourth term in office.