Austrian Chancellor resigns amid party split fueled by huge far-right gains

Austria’s Werner Faymann has unexpectedly resigned both as Chancellor and as leader of the Social Democrats two week after his party suffered serious losses to the anti-immigration Freedom Party during the first round of presidential elections.

“Do I have full cover ..., strong support within the party? I must say the answer is no. I draw the consequences from this low level of support and step down from my positions as party leader and federal chancellor,” Faymann said in a resignation statement, according to Reuters.

“This country needs a chancellor who has the party’s full support,” he added.

Faymann who has been in office since 2008, has faced criticism within his Social Democrat party after the far-right Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer won the first round of presidential elections last month.

The chancellor initially stood in favor of Germany’s open-door policy regarding refugees who have been fleeing war in the Middle East to head for Europe and even refused to set a caps on the number of migrants that may come. However, after a while Faymann had a change of heart and joined his coalition partner of the center-right Austrian People’s Party Reinhold Mitterlehner who spoke in favor of border restrictions.

Mitterlehner who serves as Vice Chancellor said there is no need for snap elections, APA news agency reported. With the far-right parties currently maintaining high support, the move seemed logical, as otherwise the Social Democrat party ran the risk of losing the chancellorship.

The next general elections in Austria are scheduled for 2018.

“For us it was a big surprise as we believed the personnel debate at the Social Democrats had been done,” Finance Minister Hans Joerg Schelling told reporters in Brussels.

A successor to Faymann in the Social Democratic Party is set be found at a meeting next week. Until that moment, Michael Haeupl, the mayor of Vienna, has been asked to take office. Haeupl shrugged off the possibility of going after the chancellor’s post, saying that he has “no intention of becoming it.”

Faymann’s resignation should not come as a big surprise to most of the observers, believes Reinhard Kreissl of Vienna Center For Social Security, since “the party is split.”

“Some stick to the old socialist ideas… while the others try to sing the song of the Freedom Party, more right-wing populist party,” Kreissl told RT. “Faymann didn’t have the guts to reconcile these two factions.”

The two most likely candidates to be appointed as an interim chancellor are Christian Kern, the head of Austrian rail operator OBB, and Gerhard Zeiler, former head of public broadcaster ORF and now president of Turner International.