Karl Nehammer takes power as third Austrian chancellor in two months

Former interior minister replaces Alexander Schallenberg during nationwide coronavirus lockdown

Karl Nehammer makes his way to the swearing-in ceremony in Vienna. Reuters
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Karl Nehammer was sworn in as Austria’s third chancellor in two months on Monday, the latest step in a turbulent political saga that coincided with a resurgence of the coronavirus.

Mr Nehammer, 49, was nominated by the ruling Austrian People’s Party (OeVP) and formally appointed by President Alexander van der Bellen in Vienna.

Previously the interior minister, Mr Nehammer was the face of Austria’s hardline immigration policies and a critic of the anti-lockdown protests that were triggered by the latest outbreak.

"There is much to do," Mr Nehammer said after the ceremony. "The pandemic is not over and is putting a strain on people.

"Our goal must be to reduce division in our society and fight together against the true enemy of our freedom," he said, apparently referring to the virus.

His predecessor, Alexander Schallenberg, stepped aside after only eight weeks in office following the surprise political retirement of previous chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

Mr Kurz, the dominant figure in the centre-right party since 2017, stepped aside as chancellor in October while he battled corruption allegations.

He denied claims that public money had been used to buy positive media coverage but the scandal damaged his standing in the polls.

Initially remaining party leader, he was widely suspected to be biding his time for a comeback while Mr Schallenberg acted as a place holder.

But Mr Kurz, 35, announced last week that he was leaving politics, saying his passion for it had dimmed after the scandal and the birth of his son.

That prompted Mr Schallenberg to resign as chancellor, on the grounds that he did not want the party leadership and believed the two posts should be reunited.

The ceremony took place at the presidential palace in Vienna, days after Sebastian Kurz's surprise retirement from politics. AFP

The OeVP subsequently chose Mr Nehammer as its new leader, giving him the task of rebuilding a party that had largely revolved around Mr Kurz.

In a Cabinet reshuffle, he sent Mr Schallenberg back to his previous post as foreign minister, and appointed new finance, education and interior ministers.

He said fighting the coronavirus would be a priority, with Austria back in a nationwide lockdown to ease pressure on hospitals.

Mr van der Bellen called on the new chancellor to restore trust in politics by showing leadership on tackling the virus.

"We don't know how else the virus will surprise us," he said. “What is always required is being straight with the public, making fact-based decisions and communicating in an understandable, well-agreed way.”

As interior minister, Mr Nehammer said anti-lockdown protests had been hijacked by extremists and “well-known neo-Nazis”.

The OeVP is hoping its coalition government with the Green party will now be able to move on from the saga surrounding Mr Kurz.

The next election is due in 2023 but there are doubts over whether the coalition will last until then.

Updated: December 06, 2021, 3:40 PM