Austria's third leader in two months takes office mid-lockdown


Designated Chancellor and leader of the People's Party (OVP) Karl Nehammer attends the swearing-in ceremony of a new government at Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria December 6, 2021. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

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 coronavirus lockdown.

Nehammer, 49, was sworn in by President Alexander Van der Bellen just after 1 p.m. (1200 GMT). As interior minister since last year, he was the enforcer of then-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.

"Division harms all of us as citizens of this country," Nehammer said in a statement to reporters soon after his swearing-in ceremony, outside which a crowd of people opposed to coronavirus restrictions blew whistles and jeered him.

More than 40,000 people protested in Vienna on Saturday against the current lockdown and a government plan to make vaccinations compulsory as of February, with hefty fines for holdouts. Details have yet to be announced.

"The primary objective must now be to show precisely to those who are afraid and concerned that we are listening to them, that we take them seriously, and at the same time to do everything to fight the actual enemy...namely the coronavirus," Nehammer said.

He added that his focus would now be on a meeting on Wednesday about how to exit the current national lockdown, which is due to expire on Sunday.

Young 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 Kurz on Friday. Alexander Schallenberg, who was foreign minister under his close ally Kurz and then served as chancellor after Kurz's resignation in October, has returned to his old job under Nehammer.

WANING SUPPORT

Kurz quit as chancellor 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 disarray that since 2017 has been largely built around Kurz.

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, though 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, Bernadette Baum and Mark Heinrich)

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