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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Scandal-shaken Austria gets third chancellor this year

Austria sworn in on Monday as new chancellor Karl Nehammer, the third person to take over in two months after a corruption scandal rocked the country’s politics.

Nehammer, 49, the country’s former interior minister, was sworn in by President Alexander van der Bellen in a ceremony at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna after taking over the leadership of the ruling Austrian People’s Party.

“I will approach my office as chancellor with great respect and seriousness,” Mr. Nehammer said after the ceremony. “Because there is an incredible amount of work to be done.”

His rise to the post of chancellor marked months of unusual chaos in Austrian politics, caused by the resignation of Sebastian Kurz as the country’s leader in October amid a criminal investigation into corruption and bribery charges. A few weeks later, he stepped down as head of the ruling conservative party.

Mr Kurtz’s successor, Alexander Schallenberg, a former diplomat and foreign ministry official, was widely known as Mr Kurtz’s deputy. But on Thursday, hours after Kurz announced that he was officially retiring from politics and, in turn, the party leadership, Schallenberg announced that he would also leave so that the head of the Austrian People’s Party could lead the country.

Mr. Schallenberg will be the foreign minister in the new government, a position he held in the Kurz administration.

“It was a real trip,” said Lorenz Ennsser-Jedenastik, assistant professor of political science at the University of Vienna. He said it is still unclear whether the past few months have been “a mistake on the timeline” or whether such instability has become the new norm for Austrian politics.

The shock, he said, was partly reflected in the concentration of power among the party leadership, in particular Mr. Kurz, who first took over as chancellor four years ago. Positioning himself as a young, media-savvy political star, Mr Kurz has attracted more supporters to the center-right movement in Austria for supporting anti-immigrant views.

But after being accused of using public funds for corrupt purposes, the party he helped strengthen ultimately decided to stop supporting him. Now the question is whether the party can solve the problem of declining public support in recent months.

“Can the new leadership fill the power vacuum to maintain stability in the party, or will it lead to turmoil?” – said Mr. Ennsser-Yedenastik.

Mr Van der Bellen, the president, hinted at a ceremony on Monday about the need to restore public confidence in politics. “What is always needed is to speak frankly with the public” and “make decisions based on facts,” he said.

Mr. Nehammer is widely recognized as a well-connected party leader with strong anchors.

As Minister of the Interior, which he took over in 2020, he was known for his tough immigration and rule of law policies under the Kurz administration. But Mr Nehammer, a former military man, also spoke about the dangers of right-wing extremism and Covid skepticism and warned people to abide by coronavirus restrictions.

The change of leadership comes at a particularly difficult time for Austria, the first European country to declare national isolation ahead of this winter in response to a surge in cases of the virus.

“People will certainly hope for a somewhat stable government that does not force them to constantly monitor new chancellors,” said Mr Ennsser-Jedenastik.

World Nation News Desk
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