Austria’s social democratic chancellor has resigned suddenly, becoming the first major political victim of Europe’s refugee crisis after accusations from within his own party that he had caved in to rightwing populist demands to build fences on the country’s borders. Werner Faymann, whose Social Democrats (SPÖ) suffered heavy losses in the first round of the presidential election last month, had initially taken a sympathetic approach to German chancellor Angela Merkel’s policy to support newcomers to Europe. But with opinion polls consistently showing that the Freedom party (FPÖ), a rightwing populist group whose success is built on anti-immigration views and and fears of Islamisation, was topping the popularity stakes, the 56-year-old did an abrupt U-turn. He joined his coalition partners from the centre-right People’s party (ÖVP) in deciding to erect fences on Austria’s borders and, working in tandem with Balkan states on the migrant routes, encouraged them to do the same.
Faymann’s standing within the party plummeted. At recent May Day celebrations in Vienna, normally a deeply symbolic day for the party which has had a strong position in the city since the end of the second world war, Faymann was booed and jeered, with SPÖ supporters holding up placards demanding his resignation, which he obliged on Monday.
Faymann, who had been in office for nearly eight years, admitted at a press conference in the chancellor’s office that he had lost the support of his party and would also be stepping down from his role as head of the SPÖ.
“This country needs a chancellor whose party is totally behind them,” Faymann said. “The government needs a fresh, forceful beginning. Anyone who doesn’t have this support is not up to the job.