VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria’s third conservative chancellor in two months, Karl Nehammer, took office on Monday seeking to bring the coalition government out of months of scandal-tainted turmoil and guide the country out of its current coronavirus lockdown.
Nehammer, 49, was sworn in by President Alexander Van der Bellen soon after 1 p.m. (1200 GMT). As interior minister since last year, he was the enforcer of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s hard line on immigration and of four national lockdowns. He is now the first head of government of the post-Kurz era.
“We do not know what the virus will surprise us with next,” Van der Bellen said at the swearing-in, ahead of which Nehammer was booed by a small crowd of people protesting against coronavirus restrictions.
“We should not create false expectations and should not promise anything that later turns out not to be achievable,” Van der Bellen said in an apparent swipe at Kurz, who said months ago that there would be no further curbs imposed on people vaccinated against COVID-19.
Conservative star Kurz, 35, stunned much of the country by announcing on Thursday that he was quitting as leader of the People’s Party (OVP) and leaving politics, saying he had lost interest since the birth of his son last month. The party picked Nehammer to succeed him as its leader on Friday.
Kurz quit as chancellor in October at the behest of his coalition partner, the left-wing Greens, because he had been placed under criminal investigation on suspicion of corruption offences. Kurz’s supporters had hoped he would quickly clear his name and return as chancellor. He denies all wrongdoing.
Prosecutors suspect that Kurz’s allies used public funds to secretly commission manipulated polling that was published in a newspaper with a view to helping him gain power in 2017, the year in which he became OVP leader and then chancellor, forming a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party.
Nehammer takes over a party in turmoil that since 2017 has been largely built around Kurz.
Nehammer indicated on Friday that he plans to keep the law-and-order agenda that was central to Kurz’s appeal but also a point of friction with the Greens. His top priority will be the coronavirus pandemic, he said, as Austria tries to keep infections falling while coming out of lockdown next week.
He must also repair the OVP’s damaged image as it has lost what most polls showed to be a lead of at least 10 percentage points over its nearest rival, the Social Democrats, since Kurz was placed under investigation.
Neither the OVP nor the Greens say they want a snap election for now but most analysts expect the coalition will not last until the end of this parliament in three years. In newspaper interviews at the weekend, Greens leader Werner Kogler did not rule out a snap election next year.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan and Bernadette Baum)