Migrant-enabling Austrian chancellor forced to resign

From The Washington Post

By Stephanie Kirchner

Austria’s chancellor resigned Monday, citing insufficient political support within his party to deal with challenges, including efforts to confront the ongoing migrant crisis.

The surprise move by Werner Faymann followed a back-of-the-pack showing last month by his Social Democratic Party in the first round of the presidential election, which was led by the right-wing Freedom Party that favors a harder line against migrants and refugees streaming into Europe.

Faymann, chancellor since 2008, was the European Union’s second-longest-serving national leader after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and among the highest-profile political casualties amid backlash against established parties and uneasiness over the waves of migrants and others seeking to reach Europe.

Outgoing Chancellor Werner Faymann of Austria at a news conference last week in Vienna

Outgoing Chancellor Werner Faymann of Austria at a news conference last week in Vienna

It also could amplify debates inside Austria over border controls and other steps as the migrant flow potentially shifts from Aegean Sea crossings to routes across the Mediterranean to Italy — putting Austria among the countries next on the trail of those heading north.

The Austrian chancellor is the head of government, so effectively the most powerful politician in the country. But the chancellor’s level of influence depends on how much backing exists in parliament for the governing party or coalition.

The Austrian president, which appoints the chancellor, has a mostly ceremonial role with limited powers to intervene in parliament.

In Vienna, Faymann said the decision was prompted by the question over “whether in this difficult time . . . one has the full backing in one’s party.”

“I have to answer this with no,” he added.

Austria had recently adopted a tougher stance toward migrants, including stricter controls of its external borders such as plans for a border fence along the Brenner Pass from Italy.

But some politicians, including leaders of the Freedom Party, have called for even tougher measures.

The move comes at a time when Austria’s ruling coalition has increasingly come under pressure for its refugee policy by the Freedom Party.

The Freedom Party’s presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer, was far ahead in April’s presidential elections with more than 35 percent of the vote.

But Hofer missed the 50 percent threshold for outright victory. He will face a run-off election May 22 against former Green Party chairman Alexander Van der Bellen.

“What we’re witnessing in Austria is a true wind of change,” said Peter Hajek, a political analyst based in Vienna. “The majority of people are fed up with the current system,” opening greater room for right-wing groups and populists across Europe.

Until a new candidate is found, Deputy Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner will take over as head of government.

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