(Bloomberg) -- Austria is set to appoint its top cop as the country’s third chancellor in as many months, taking charge in the midst of a lockdown and with politics in turmoil.
Interior Minister Karl Nehammer, known for his hard line on immigration, is due to be appointed 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 keeping a shaky coalition afloat.
Nehammer will need to build upon the political rubble left by Sebastian Kurz, who announced his exit from politics on Thursday. The former chancellor’s announcement 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 may steer his focus toward domestic matters and end an era of Austria punching above its weight in the European Union on matters ranging from budget policy to immigration.
Magnus Brunner, a state secretary at the Energy Ministry, may become the new finance chief, according to the Kurier newspaper.
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 may prove to be short-lived if the Green Party decides to end their coalition government.
While pledging to stay on for now, it’s a fragile alliance. The turmoil in the People’s Party would give them 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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