VIENNA Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz called on Friday for a snap election, bringing the country's coalition government to the brink of collapse while moving to become leader of his conservative party.
Kurz, 30, enjoys wide support within the People's Party (OVP) as its best hope of rebounding from poor ratings to challenge the far-right Freedom Party (FPO). The FPO is running first in opinion polls, closely followed by Chancellor Christian Kern's Social Democrats.
Surveys suggest that Kurz taking over as leader of the OVP would catapult it into first place, but he said he wants the job to come with more sweeping powers. One of his hallmarks has been a hard line on immigration, to the point that the FPO has accused him of stealing its ideas.
"I personally believe early elections would be the right path," Kurz told a news conference, denouncing a "permanent election campaign" by members of the often bickering centrist coalition government, whose term runs until autumn 2018.
Calling a snap election requires a majority in parliament, which the OVP and FPO together are three seats short of. Kern, the chancellor, appeared to leave open the option of leading a minority government if the OVP pulled out of the coalition.
"We do not want a snap election. We will keep trying to achieve sensible solutions, including with variable majorities if necessary," Kern told newspaper Die Presse. Asked whether that meant a minority government, a spokesman for Kern said only that he would work with whichever parties he could.
Kern, who took over as chancellor a year ago, struck a deal with the OVP in January on a new policy package heavy on law-and-order measures aimed at undercutting support for the anti-immigration FPO.
But public spats within the coalition have continued, and indiscipline among OVP ministers was a significant factor behind Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner's surprise announcement on Wednesday that he was stepping down from his posts, including as leader of the OVP.
It is unclear whether a snap election would backfire in a country still reeling from last year's re-run and delayed presidential vote, which an FPO candidate nearly won, helped by concerns linked to Europe's migration crisis.
A poll by Research Affairs for tabloid Oesterreich carried out after Mitterlehner's announcement put support for the OVP with Kurz as its leader at 35 percent, 10 points clear of the FPO and 14 of the Social Democrats. The OVP under Mitterlehner has been polling around 20 percent.
Kern on Wednesday extended an offer to Kurz and the OVP to continue their alliance until the end of their term rather than hold a snap election, but Kurz dismissed that offer.
"I think that days or weeks later we would be exactly where we have always been. Minimal compromises that do not really change the country would be agreed on," said Kurz.
The government's perceived ineffectiveness has fuelled support for the FPO, which has repeatedly called for a snap election and said on Wednesday it would back one.
One of the smaller parties in parliament, Team Stronach, said it would oppose a snap election. The positions of others, including the Greens and the liberal Neos, were less clear.
Kurz said he would take the OVP leader's job only if it came with more powers, to avoid the kind of in-fighting that prompted Mitterlehner to quit.
"Whoever takes over the leadership must have the possibility to set a party line, and he must above all be able to make staffing decisions," Kurz said, in an apparent reference to the strong influence within the party of figures such as the governors of Austrian provinces.
The party leadership is due to meet on Sunday to decide who should replace Mitterlehner.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy and Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Michael Shields and Toby Chopra)