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Austria chancellor quits as traditional powers face challenge from Freedom Party


Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann has resigned, according to reports (AP)

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann has resigned, according to reports (AP)

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann has resigned, according to reports (AP)

Austria's chancellor abruptly resigned on Monday, a high-profile victim of Europe's growing shift to the right, which threatens to push into obscurity some parties that have dominated post-Second World War politics.

Werner Faymann cited lack of backing from his fellow Social Democrats as his reason for stepping down both as the nation's and his party's leader. "This country needs a chancellor who has the party's full support," he said in a statement.

Vice chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, of coalition partner People's Party, was to take over until the government nominates a new candidate for presidential approval. The Social Democrats announced that a new party head would be chosen on June 25.

Pressure had been mounting on Mr Faymann since his party's candidate was drubbed in the first round of presidential elections last month by a rival from the right-wing Eurosceptic Freedom Party.

But his resignation was unexpected, signalling not only disarray within the Social Democratic Party but also a shift in Austria's traditional political landscape.

In his more than seven years at the helm, the Social Democrats - who once commanded absolute majorities - have seen their popularity sink both in the 2013 national elections and in provincial votes.

The centrist People's Party - the other dominant post-Second World War political force - saw a similar loss of support even before the migrant crisis hit full-force last year. In both cases, much of the backing for the traditional parties has shifted to the right-wing Freedom Party.

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The Freedom Party's strongest card is strong anti-migrant sentiment within Austria. But it also has benefited from perceptions that the establishment parties are out of touch over other issues, including unemployment and terrorism.

Recent polls show support for the Freedom Party has surged to 32%, compared with just over 20% for the government coalition. Even before the migrant influx strengthened the right-wing opposition, decades of established party bickering over key issues - most recently tax, pension and education reform - has fed perceptions of political stagnation.

Reflecting Austria's political upheaval, Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer received 35% of the vote in the April 24 first round presidential vote to just over 10% each for the Social Democratic and People's Party hopefuls. Mr Hofer is the favourite going into the May 22 run-off against a former leader of the Green party running as an independent.

The shift in favour of a vehemently Eurosceptic party is significant, as Austria has been traditionally in the pro-EU camp. For pro-European politicians, it is a worrying sign of what could happen in the country's next general election, which must be held within two years, and the latest indication of the strength of anti-EU parties in Europe.

In EU founding member France, Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front party won European Parliament elections two years ago, and a recent poll had 80% of respondents saying they think she will make it to the second round of France's 2017 presidential election. In the Netherlands, a poll this year had anti-EU populist Geert Wilders' party leading in popularity.

Hungary and Poland are already governed by Eurosceptic parties, while the Czech president regularly criticises the EU. In Scandinavia and Finland, populist parties advocating national interests over EU authority are either in power or strongly represented in parliament.

Germany's anti-EU AfD party, is in eight state parliaments, scoring in the double digits last month in three state parliament elections.

Political scientist Peter Filzmaier says the populist surge has paralleled growing disenchantment with the European Union and traces both back to the 2008 world financial crisis.

Since then, he says, "trust in EU institutions has crumbled, but trust in national governments is hardly better".

Mr Faymann had hoped to stop the Freedom Party surge by swinging to end Austria's open-border policies for refugees earlier this year. But that only hurt him and his party. While many Social Democrats backed the move, others accused him of betraying their party's humanitarian principles.

Whistling and boos met him at his party's traditional May 1 event, drowning out the cheers of his backers. Many in the more than 10,000-strong crowd carried signs demanding he step down.

Mr Faymann appeared unbowed, telling Austrians just last week to "continue reckoning with me." The abrupt change of mind appeared to reflect an acknowledgment that change at the top is needed.

"This government needs a new start," he said on Monday.

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