VIENNA (Reuters) – The leadership of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO) unanimously nominated hard-liner Herbert Kickl as its next chief on Monday after former presidential hopeful Norbert Hofer quit the post unexpectedly last week.
Kickl, a pugnacious former interior minister, had served as deputy to Hofer, who was widely seen as the most likeable face of the anti-Islam and anti-immigration party that crashed out of government due to a video sting scandal two years ago.
Relations between the two men had soured, however, as speculation about Hofer’s health mounted and Kickl said he was willing to take on a more senior role.
With the FPO still recovering from the 2019 scandal that felled then-leader Heinz-Christian Strache, there had been debate as to whether Kickl is the right pick after the more diplomatic Hofer, who did not endorse him when he stepped down.
In the end, the top FPO figures quickly picked Kickl as the next leader, with a party congress on June 19 due to approve the decision.
A former speechwriter for the party’s late firebrand leader Joerg Haider, Kickl has taken a harder line than Hofer on opposing coronavirus restrictions. He said he would give the party’s supporters the straight talk they want.
“I think they are people who hope to be dealt with honestly and want direct communication, concrete answers and who are fed up with the same old political gruel, with this pedestrian blabla they are served daily,” Kickl told a news conference.
He also took aim at Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the conservative People’s Party, who forced him out of government shortly after Strache quit and before that government collapsed.
“It will of course be a confrontation with the turquoise People’s Party,” he said of the party’s future course, referring to the conservative party by its chosen colour.
Most recent polls have shown Kurz’s party with a roughly 10-point lead over the opposition Social Democrats, with the FPO third on less than 20%.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Catherine Evans)