Christian Kern, likely new chancellor of Austria | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 12.05.2016
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Christian Kern, likely new chancellor of Austria

The head of Austria's railways looks set to succeed Werner Faymann, who stepped down earlier this week. Another potential candidate has ruled himself out of contention. From Vienna, Alison Langley reports.

He's young, energetic and a "doer": Kern, 50, is the ultimate mix of politician and businessman, and he appears to be set to become the next Chancellor of Austria.

Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) leaders from seven of Austria's nine provinces, which hold significant sway in the federalized country, have expressed support for Kern ahead of a party meeting next Tuesday that will officially pick a candidate to succeed Faymann. And, Erich Foglar, the head of the influential umbrella group for Austria's trade unions, the ÖGB, has described Kern as having the right skills for the job.

Josef Muchitsch, a prominent union leader and member of parliament, who earlier this week urged Faymann to go, told DW he supported Kern.

"He comes unaffected into the policy arena. He can reposition the party, is proactive, and decisive," Muchitsch said. "He is a doer, and a Sir in the political debate."

Kern also appears to have support from the leader of the youth wing of the party. Katrin Walch described him as "likeable," and added that she believed he could "bring renewal to the party." Like Walch, Muchitsch remarked that Kern "listened well."

Österreich ÖBB-Zug am Hauptbahnhof in Wien

Don't let his current job derail you, Kern's been close to politics and the Social Democrats for years

The Social Democrats have been looking for a new party leader since Werner Faymann stepped down earlier this week. Faymann was effectively the casualty of a first-round presidential election in April - in which his party's candidate received a thrashing from the far-right Freedom Party, which has been rising in popularity on its anti-immigrant platform in the wake of Europe's refugee crisis.

Kern took over as head of Austria's state-run railway operator ÖBB in 2010, and he was a manager at Austrian hydropower utility Verbund. But Vienna-born Kern is no stranger to politics. He previously worked as a spokesman for the Social Democrats' parliamentary group and is a veteran party insider, 32 years an SPÖ member.

Freedom Party criticizes Kern's role in migrant crisis

Kern, in fact, has been named in a lawsuit brought by the Freedom Party for his role in overseeing the mass transit of migrants through the country at the height of the migrant crisis last year. The Freedom Party accused him of allowing "uncontrolled and unregistered people," at the bidding of the government, to travel across the country. In doing so, Austrian Rail was engaging in human trafficking, the suit charged.

On his Facebook Page, Freedom Party chairman Heinz-Christian Strache called Kern's likely appointment "disappointing," adding: "With Kern as the apparent successor to Faymann as the new SPÖ leader, expect more of the same."

Charting a course on migrant issue

The Social Democrats' conservative ÖVP junior partners in the ruling coalition have made it a condition for the current government's survival that Faymann's successor implement a tough new asylum law, cap social security benefits and deregulate the economy.

Österreich Kanzler Werner Faymann Pressekonferenz in Wien

Despite many simmering tensions, Faymann's resignation came as a shock this week

However, a tougher course on refugees may be difficult for Kern. The youth wing of his own party is calling for a kinder, gentler approach. Josef Muchitsch saw the ÖVP's bid to change the coalition's course as opportunism, saying not to expect rapid or major changes:

"The SPÖ and the ÖVP have set out a clear strategy on this for the next three years," Muchitsch told DW. "When it comes to the overall policy direction of the SPÖ in the future on issues like asylum and foreigners, I imagine that a strategy group will be charged with working on suggestions, followed by discussions within the SPÖ."

On Wednesday Austria's acting chancellor, Reinhold Mitterlehner, who heads the junior coalition party, did not rule out a snap parliamentary election following Faymann's resignation.

More changes coming?

An ÖBB spokeswoman declined to comment on Kern's future or media reports that Andreas Matthä, a member of the ÖBB board, would take over as the new chief rail executive.

On May 22, Austrians will choose between the Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer and a former Green Party member, Alexander van der Bellen, who is running as an independent, as their next president.

But a new chancellor and president may not be the only changes in government. Hannes Swoboda, a Social Democrat member of the European Parliament ominously tweeted his congratulations to Kern: "Many people will make life difficult, but we should support him with his new team for renewal."

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