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Austria Gets Another Leader as Political Turmoil, COVID-19 Rage

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Austria nominated its interior minister as the country’s third chancellor in as many months, enduring a change in power in the midst of a lockdown and with politics in turmoil.

Karl Nehammer, known for his hard line on immigration, was picked as chancellor and new chairman of the ruling People’s Party after a meeting of the conservative group’s leaders in Vienna on Friday.

The 49-year-old career politician faces the task of navigating Austria out of strict pandemic restrictions and implementing a controversial vaccine mandate, all while looking to revive support for his party and keep a shaky governing alliance intact.

Speaking to reporters after his appointment, Nehammer said he’d seek swift discussions with Austria’s president and coalition partners to fight the virus and restore personal freedoms. He also pledged to maintain strict policies on immigration and security, an indication that he’s planning a very domestic-focused agenda.

Nehammer will need to act fast to repair the political damage left by Sebastian Kurz, who suddenly announced his exit from politics on Thursday. With a corruption investigation ongoing, the former chancellor’s decision to step down as party chairman prompted Alexander Schallenberg — his hand-picked successor as chancellor — to give up his position after two months. Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel also resigned.

The high-profile exodus reflects Kurz’s far-reaching influence on Austrian politics after he revamped the conservative party and became a standard-bearer for the center-right in Europe. But it also shows the drawbacks of building a political machine around a single personality.

While Kurz’s good-son image and polite populism drew voters, his staying power proved fleeting, collapsing under a deluge of leaked messages revealing a toxic culture of back-stabbing and power grabbing within his closest ranks.

Kurz faces multiple probes, including into false testimony to parliament and allegations that he used federal funds to plant fabricated public opinion polls in newspapers to help build his career.

The challenges mean Nehammer is likely to end an era of Austria punching above its weight in the European Union on matters ranging from budget policy to refugees.

Magnus Brunner, a state secretary at the Energy Ministry, will become finance chief, and Schallenberg will return to his earlier role as foreign minister.

With the country still under lockdown, the new leader’s most imminent task is to cut infection rates and craft public support for steps intended to pressure more people into getting a vaccine. With one of the lowest inoculation rates in Western Europe, Austria was the first country in the region to announce plans to make Covid shots compulsory. A draft law is due next week, and the step is expected to come into force in February.

On the political level, Nehammer will need to rebuild the conservative party as it tumbles in the polls. His stint could also end being short-lived if the Green Party decides to pull out of the coalition.

While pledging to stay on for now, it’s a fragile partnership. The turmoil in the People’s Party would give the Greens fresh grounds to pull the plug and trigger the third snap elections since 2017. Meanwhile, the latest polls raise the prospect of a German-style coalition with the social democrats and liberals.

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