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Austrian chancellor launches bid to win back voters from far right

By Francois Murphy

By Francois Murphy

WELS, Austria (Reuters) - Austrian centre-left Chancellor Christian Kern on Wednesday launched a bid to win back voters from the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), presenting a 10-year plan focused on creating jobs, boosting public investment and taxing multinationals.

The far-right FPO, whose candidate achieved a record score in Austria's presidential election last year, is running first in opinion polls with support of roughly a third, helped by fears about immigration and rising unemployment.

Many of its new voters are former supporters of Kern's Social Democrats frustrated by the coalition with the conservative People's Party, an alliance marked by frequent bickering that is widely seen as ineffective.

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"Those who no longer believe in us, those who are disappointed by us, those who are perhaps angry, I hear your message and I understand your disappointment," Kern said in a landmark speech to hundreds of supporters in Wels, the biggest town in Austria run by an FPO mayor and a former SPO stronghold.

"From today we will change course," said Kern, who headed the national rail company until he took over as chancellor in May. His 146-page plan covered a range of issues including core SPO themes like healthcare and raising the minimum wage.

"I want 200,000 extra jobs," Kern said, calling for greater public investment and measures to help start-ups, but without spelling out how that figure would be achieved.

The FPO has made political hay out of Europe's migration crisis, which Austria was swept up in more than a year ago when hundreds of thousands of people swept through the country, many fleeing war and poverty in the Middle East and beyond.

Kern, however, focused more on immigration from eastern European countries, saying he would push for measures within the EU to restrict practices under which companies can send eastern European workers to Austria without paying full Austrian taxes.

"We have a situation where these eastern European countries are exporting their joblessness to Austria," said Kern, whose party is supported by roughly 27 percent of voters, polls suggest.

Kern's plan, which stretches well beyond the coalition's term expires in autumn 2018, said he would push within the EU for candidates in Austria to be given priority for jobs in sectors that are particularly under pressure.

Picking up on another FPO theme, Kern criticized multinationals, denouncing firms that base themselves in an EU country with a low tax base so they can avoid or reduce their tax bill in other EU states they operate in.

His plan called for a "punitive" tax of more than 25 percent to be imposed on companies that book profits from sales in Austria in other European countries to avoid paying Austrian tax. He also said online companies like Google should have to pay the same tax on advertising revenue as newspapers.

How these proposals would play with the People's Party was not immediately clear, but Kern seemed to dismiss persistent speculation that their coalition will collapse this year, forcing a snap parliamentary election.

"I am convinced that there remains enough for us to do until autumn 2018," Kern said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; editing by Ralph Boulton)

 
 
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