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The stability of Austria’s coalition government has been thrown into doubt following the resignation of the country’s vice chancellor and leader of the centre-right People’s Party.
Reinhold Mitterlehner has quit in exasperation over simmering disputes within the coalition administration headed by Social Democratic chancellor Christian Kern.
His departure, announced at a press conference on Wednesday, could increase pressure for early national parliamentary elections which would prove a further test of populist parties in Europe.
Austria’s far-right Freedom Party has led recent opinion polls, and came close last year to having its candidate elected as Austrian president. National elections are not scheduled until September next year.
Mr Mitterlehner is widely expected to be succeeded as leader of the People’s party by Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s 30-year-old foreign minister, who would then run for the Austrian chancellorship.
However, in his first reaction, Mr Kern sought to avert an early poll by offering to work in a “reform partnership” with Mr Kurz. “My goal is to continue working with the People’s Party,” the chancellor said.
Austria is one of Europe’s most affluent countries but tensions within the “grand coalition” of the country’s two main parties – the Social Democrats and People’s Party – have been exacerbated by Austria’s recent economic under performance. Europe’s migration crisis has further stoked pressures. Thousands of refugees fleeing wars in countries such as Syria have entered the country, although most have continued to countries such as Germany and Sweden. The Freedom Party has won support by pledging tougher controls on immigration.
Although part of the governing coalition, senior People’s Party leaders have also criticised the work of the government in efforts to position themselves for the next election. Mr Mitterlehner praised Mr Kern in his resignation statement but said he did not want to remain caught in the middle of such conflicts. “That is simply no fun – but also makes no sense.” He said he was resigning for “self-protection”.
Decisions on the People’s Party leadership are expected this weekend.