Austrian Werner Faymann has stepped down as chancellor and leader of the Social Democrats. As Alison Langley in Vienna reports, his resignation throws the future of the Austria’s government into question.
Next to Germany’s Angela Merkel, Faymann was one of the longest ruling leaders in Europe. But his inability to tackle systemic problems caused his downfall.
While Social Democratic leaders say his departure will help them rebuild the party, their government coalition partner, the conservative Austrian People’s Party, could decide to change allegiances and side with the far-right Freedom Party and call for a new election.
Should that happen, Austria could be the first western European country to elect the first far right government since World War Two.
“Austria could be the beginning of the return of the right,” said Alexandra Foederl-Schmid, editor-in-chief of Der Standard. “This is a very real possibility.”
Faymann’s resignation comes two weeks after his party’s candidate received an embarrassing pummeling in the first round of presidential elections. Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer received more than 35 percent of the vote and is the top runner to be Austria’s next president.
Voters expressed their anger over the government’s inability to solve many of the country’s problems, including rising unemployment, the refugee crisis and education reform.
“When you’ve had the honor of being chancellor for seven and a half years, then one can only say thank you, and I say that from my deepest inner conviction,” said Faymann, 56, in a hastily called press conference just before lunch.
Coalition partner, the Austrian People’s Party, has called an emergency meeting for Tuesday. It could vote to leave the coalition. If it does so, elections would be held in September.
Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl to be interim leader
Vienna’s mayor, Michael Häupl, will be the party’s interim leader. A successor for the chancellory has not yet been announced.
Two likely successors for Faymann could be Christian Kern, the current head of Austria’s Railway, and Gerhard Zeiler, a former head of Austria’s public broadcaster and currently an executive at private media group RTL.
‘Werner let us be’
The weekend was filled with speculation over Faymann’s future. At one point, Josef Muchitsch, a prominent union leader, pleaded in a letter: “Werner, let us be!”
However, by Monday morning, conventional wisdom was that the chancellor would hang on at least until the party convention in November mainly because there was no obvious successor.
The long-time party leader had spent Monday morning meeting with union leaders and midday with party leaders from each state before announcing his resignation.
Faymann was Austria’s 13th chancellor. He took office Dec. 2, 2008. When he took office, unemployment was at 4.7 percent. At a time when the jobless rate has fallen in other European nations, it has gone up in this Alpine country: In April it stood at 5.7 percent.
“The strong support of the party has disappeared,” Fayman said, adding that he accepts the consequence.
SPÖ now must rebuild
Still his resignation was a surprise to many, even Salzburg’s governor Walter Steidl, who told reporters “I’m surprised; reason has won,” he said, as he left the midday meeting.
Most party members greeted the politician’s departure, but said more needed to be done to turn around rising unemployment and help to integrate 90,000 refugees who flooded the country last year.
“This is a first step, but it’s not enough,” Camila del Pilar Garfias, a leader of the youth wing of the Social Democrat party, told DW.
Austria has been deeply divided over many issues, but perhaps the toughest issue has been how to solve the refugee crisis. Last year, when the wave of migrants turned into a rush, Faymann stood beside Merkel in welcoming those fleeing war.
When the country was overwhelmed with 90,000 asylum requests, Faymann, who prided himself on a “stable” governing style, was at a loss for what to do. The party seemed ruderless; he left the policy to governing partner, the People’s Party, which has erected fences, resurrected border controls and announced an upper limit on the number of asylum seekers the country will accept this year.
Faymann’s resignation on Monday came two days after hundreds of protesters gathered at the Brenner Pass, on the border with Italy, to demonstrate against Austria’s latest checks. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker also criticized the new border controls, saying they would be a “political disaster” for Europe.
Political commentator Thomas Hofer agreed that Faymann’s departure paves the way for the Social Democrats and the People’s Party to renegotiate a program acceptible to voters before national elections, which must be held by 2018 at the latest.
However, if the Social Democrats appoint a strong, decisive leader, it could ironically play into the hands of the far right, said Foederl-Schmid.
That’s because a rebuilt center-left party might hurt the People’s Party chances of re-election. The fate of the country now lies in the hands of the junior partner. The center-right party could choose instead to partner with the far-right Freedom Party.
Coalition partner could switch allegiance
Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner from the People’s Party called for an emergency party meeting to discuss the future of the coalition.
In a statement released to the press, Neo Party leader, Matthias Strolz, greeted Faymann’s resignation, saying he hoped it would be the end to the “power cartel” of the two parties, which have ruled Austria since the end of the Second World War.
Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the right-wing Freedom Party, said the change in leadership wasn’t enough. “The new decoration in the display case doesn’t change the poor assortment.”