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New Austrian cabinet shows shift to the right

December 16, 2017

The new chancellor of Austria, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz, has given his right-wing Freedom Party (FPO) partners key appointments in the new cabinet. It signals a significant shift to the right.

Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache and People's Party chief Sebastian Kurz
Image: Reuters/L. Foeger

The conservative People's Party (OVP) leader Sebastian Kurz will become the next chancellor and right-wing coalition partner Freedom Party (FPO) head Heinz-Christian Strache will become vice-chancellor in the new Austrian government. Strache will also be minister for sports and public servants.

Five other ministries go to Strache's Freedom Party. They include the key interior, defense and foreign ministries. 

Kurz's People's Party will have seven ministers and one deputy. They include the finance, economy and justice ministries.

The ministers are to be sworn in on Monday. 

Following meetings with Kurz and Strache, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen said he had been assured of a "pro-European" focus of the new government.

"In these talks among other things we agreed it is in the national interest of Austria to remain at the center of a strong European Union and to actively participate in the future development of the European Union," Van der Bellen said.

 "We have agreed a clear pro-EU stance with the aim of boosting subsidiarity in the EU," Kurz told a news conference. They favor an EU that is "stronger in big questions and which should step back on smaller issues," he said.

There will be no referendum on Austria's EU membership, Strache said. "We stand by the European Union, we stand by the peace project of Europe. But we see various developments critically, and we will of course articulate this and seek partners," Strache said.

Both parties campaigned on tougher immigration controls, speedier deportations of failed asylum seekers and a crackdown on radical Islam.

Youngest European leader

The 31-year-old Kurz led a revamped People's Party to first place in the October 15 parliamentary election.  The conservatives and right-wing populists agreed to form a coalition government on Friday.

"We want to reduce the burden on taxpayers ... and above all we want to ensure greater security in our country, including through the fight against illegal immigration," Kurz said.

It is the first time in 11 years that the OVP has taken over the chancellery. The party was the junior coalition partner in the outgoing government led by the Social Democrats (SPO), which suffered a setback in the polls, coming in second place. 

Tougher immigration controls

The coalition deal brings the Freedom Party into government for the first time in twelve years after it secured third place in the election on a hardline immigration stance. It was the junior coalition partner in 1986-87 and 2000-05. Previous coalition governments with the FPO have all collapsed before the five-year period of governance, with the longest lasting less than three years.

The shift in Austrian politics to the right has raised concerns about the FPO's Eurosceptic and anti-Islam positions. 

Kurz, who was foreign minister in the outgoing government, said Thursday that he had secured the FPO's commitment to a pro-European stance. 

However, both parties oppose deeper political integration among EU states and want Austria's borders secured against immigration until the EU's external borders are secured.

bik,cw/jm (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)