VIENNA Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern urged his conservative coalition partners on Wednesday to stay in the government after its leader unexpectedly quit, raising the prospect of a snap election while the far-right leads in opinion polls.
A new election would give the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) a chance of entering national government less than a year after its candidate lost a close-fought presidential race. Polls regularly show the FPO running first on about 30 percent, with Kern's Social Democrats (SPO) a close second.
"I am convinced that it makes sense to use the more than a year ahead to make the necessary changes in our country," Kern told a news conference. "The concepts are there ... It is just a question of having the will to make those changes."
The FPO criticised what it branded the government's "paralysis" and called for a snap election. The coalition government's term runs until autumn 2018.
Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, leader of the conservative People's Party (OVP), said earlier on Wednesday he was quitting after having failed to quell party infighting and speculation about its future leadership.
Mitterlehner's surprise resignation raises pressure on Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, 30, to take over as head of the OVP, as he is widely expected to do before the next election.
Kurz has said he has no interest in taking over the OVP at present but several polls suggest that it would boost the party's ratings and thrust it into first place if he did.
The OVP said its leadership would meet on Sunday to decide on Mitterlehner's successor. In an interview with APA news agency, Kurz expressed his support for Mitterlehner but gave little indication of his plans. His spokesmen were not available for comment.
Kern appeared to suggest that Kurz was already in charge.
"I am offering the OVP and Sebastian Kurz a reform partnership for Austria," Kern told reporters, without elaborating.
The two parties already announced a new coalition agreement in January that included several law-and-order measures aimed at eroding support for the FPO and giving their fractious government a new lease of life.
But squabbling between the SPO and OVP has continued.
Interior Minister Wolfgang Sobotka, an OVP hawk, accused Kern in an interview this week of "failure as chancellor", prompting SPO ministers to round on Kurz.
Such quarrels have fuelled a view among many voters that the government is ineffective, which has helped the FPO.
"This government is marked by paralysis and division -- that is embarrassing and unacceptable," FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache told APA, calling for a snap election.
Mitterlehner's inability to quell indiscipline and persistent speculation about when Kurz might replace him appeared to have prompted his decision to quit.
"I am not a place-holder," Mitterlehner told a hastily convened news conference on Wednesday.
Where his resignation leaves the party and the coalition remains unclear.
"The likelihood of a snap election has now increased," political analyst Thomas Hofer said.
"There are various possible scenarios: that the new OVP leader calls (an election) immediately at the weekend, or someone takes over in the interim until Kurz takes over before elections," he added. "Of course, Kurz can take over now and say ... 'We will pull through together with the SPO'."
(Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Gareth Jones)