Immigration hardliner Nehammer to take over as Austrian leader


Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz gives a statement as he resigns from all political duties, in Vienna, Austria, December 2, 2021. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria's ruling conservatives on Friday picked the current interior minister, an immigration hardliner, to lead them and the nation after a wave of resignations by senior officials set off by their fallen star Sebastian Kurz.

Karl Nehammer, 49, succeeds Kurz as party chief and will lead the coalition government with the Greens. He takes over a party in disarray since Kurz stepped down as chancellor in October because he had been placed under criminal investigation on suspicion of corruption offences. Kurz denies wrongdoing.

Nehammer said he planned to maintain the central law-and-order themes of Kurz's two stints as chancellor since 2017.

"It is important to me as the new leader of the People's Party that we hold our lines, that we say clearly what is necessary when it comes to the issue of migration and asylum, when it comes to the issue of security for people in our country," Nehammer told a news conference.

He also said fighting coronavirus would be a top priority. Austria is currently in lockdown as authorities seek to ease pressure on hospitals dealing with still-high infection rates.

It was not yet clear when he would be sworn in.

Kurz's resignation as party leader on Thursday sent shockwaves through the party and prompted two of his closest allies, Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg and Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel, to say they too would step down. Schallenberg had been in the job for less than two months.

Bluemel is under investigation in a separate corruption case and also denies wrongdoing. Both he and Kurz said that having newborn children had motivated their decisions.

SLUMP IN SUPPORT

Nehammer will take over the current ruling coalition between his People's Party (OVP) and the Greens.

He said he would work in close consultation with President Alexander Van der Bellen, who swears in ministers and oversees periods of transition, to appoint all his conservative ministers as quickly as possible.

Van der Bellen is unlikely to oppose any of Nehammer's picks. The Greens have said their team will remain unchanged.

Nehammer said he was nominating party official Magnus Brunner as finance minister, while Schallenberg will return to his old job of foreign minister.

Since Kurz was placed under investigation most opinion polls show the OVP has lost a lead of at least 10 percentage points over its nearest rivals, the opposition Social Democrats. They are now neck and neck.

Kurz, who made a hard line on immigration his hallmark and first became chancellor in 2017 by going into coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, has been the dominant and most polarising figure of Austrian politics for years.

Neither the OVP nor the Greens have an obvious interest in a snap election as opinion polls suggest both would lose seats. But tensions between them are such that few analysts expect their government to survive until the end of this parliament in 2023.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)

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