World Bulletin / News Desk
Crisis-hit Austria appointed new Chancellor Christian Kern on Tuesday, with the ailing centrist government pinning its hopes on the ex-railway boss to help stem the surge of the far-right.
The 50-year-old, renowned for his glowing business achievements and snappy dress sense, was sworn in by President Heinz Fischer at Vienna's Hofburg palace shortly after 1500 GMT.
"You are taking on a great and beautiful but also difficult role with a lot of responsibilities," Fischer said before the two men sat down to sign the official certificate of appointment.
True to his reputation as someone who takes pride in his appearance, Kern wore a perfectly tailored dark suit and stylish horn-rimmed glasses for his first appearance as head of state.
The father-of-four replaces fellow Social Democrat Werner Faymann of the SPOe party who threw in the towel on May 9 after a string of poor election results.
Kern faces the major challenge of uniting a fractious SPOe and smoothing over tensions with its coalition partner, the conservative People's Party (OeVP).
He also has to convince Austrians unhappy about the arrival of migrants and rising unemployment to vote for his party at the next scheduled elections in 2018.
However, Kern's biggest headache will be to decide whether to ditch the SPOe's 30-year-old taboo on cooperating with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) dating back to when the late, controversial Joerg Haider became leader of the right-wing party.
"We won't work with parties which stir up hatred against other people and minorities, full stop," Kern said at a press conference shortly before his swearing-in ceremony.
"From my point of view it's crystal clear that principles must come before keeping power," he added.
The appointment comes days before a presidential runoff vote, pitching the FPOe's Norbert Hofer against the Green-backed candidate Alexander van der Bellen on May 22.
In the first round last month, Hofer comfortably beat his rival by 35 percent to 21 percent.
Meanwhile the SPOe and OeVP were knocked out of the race with just 11 percent. The dismal performance means that for the first time since 1945, the president will not come from one of the two main parties.
This heralds the risk of the new head of state taking advantage of some of the president's never-before-used powers, such as firing the government.
Mirroring trends elsewhere in Europe, Austria's main parties have been losing voters for years while the FPOe now consistently scores more than 30 percent in opinion polls.
As a result, the SPOe and OeVP could fall short of being able in 2018 to re-form their "grand coalition". In the last election three years ago, they only just scratched together a majority.
"The task before Kern is Herculean," political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP in a recent interview.
'End the paralysis'
Kern, dubbed a "pinstripes socialist" by German broadcaster ARD, grew up in a working class district of Vienna as the son of an electrician and a secretary.
He joined the SPOe when he was young, climbing up the ranks before moving to an energy firm in 1997 and to national railways company OeBB in 2010.
There, he is widely credited with a turnaround and successfully managing the transport of immense numbers of migrants transiting through Austria in 2015.
"I've had to wipe a few tears away and comfort employees with the thought that it's not the end of the world that the boss is becoming chancellor," Roman Hebenstreit of the OeBB works council said when news of Kern's appointment broke last Friday.
But whether Kern can heal the SPOe remains to be seen. His positions on key policy areas are vague, although he is thought to lean more to the right on economic issues.
FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache said that Kern's performance at the railways company during the migrant crisis "showed that he actively supported Faymann's people-smuggling policy".
"If Kern really wants to end the paralysis and the glaring deficits that this country is suffering from, then he should clear the way for new elections," Strache said last week.
Kern, who will replace four ministers in his new cabinet, is due to give his first parliamentary speech on Thursday.
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