Austrian party picks new leader, early elections likely

FILE - In this May 5, 2017 file photo Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern attends a joint news conference after a meeting with Croatia's Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic at the federal chancellery in Vienna. Austria’s chancellor Christian Kern says Sunday May 14, 2017 he expects an early election this fall as his coalition partner mulls its future leadership. Austria is governed by an often bad-tempered alliance of Chancellor Christian Kern’s center-left Social Democrats and the center-right Austrian People’s Party. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak,file)
FILE - In this March 17, 2017 file photo, Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People's Party poses for a photo during an interview with The Associated Press in Vienna. Austria’s chancellor Christian Kern says Sunday, May 14, 2017 he expects an early election this fall as his coalition partner mulls its future leadership. Austria is governed by an often bad-tempered alliance of Chancellor Christian Kern’s center-left Social Democrats and the center-right Austrian People’s Party. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak,file)

VIENNA — Austria's junior government coalition partner chose a new leader Sunday and gave him the unprecedented authority he demanded as a condition for leading his party into expected early elections this fall.

Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz told reporters that senior officials of his People's Party agreed to let him choose all ministers of any government he would head, as well as to nominate candidates for parliament that would include party outsiders.

Speaking after a closed meeting, Kurz said that the gathering also agreed to contest at least the next elections under a name change. Instead of the People's Party, Kurz and other candidates would now run under the "List Sebastian Kurz - the new People's Party."

"We have decided to start a movement," Kurz told reporters. "We're going to rely on proven forces from within the People's Party, but at the same time we're going to bring new people on board."

The power grab is significant in a party where provincial governors have historically had an outsize say in running federal affairs, including pushing through ministerial appointments and overriding major policy decisions by the federal leader.

With few exceptions, that has led party heads to resign in frustration in recent decades. The latest, Reinhold Mitterlehner, threw in the towel Wednesday after less than three years as party leader and vice chancellor.

The center-right People's Party is now a distant third among voters. But Kurz, a telegenic 30-year old, regularly tops political popularity polls.

That is due in part for his embrace of a harder line on immigrants and other positions of the right-wing Freedom Party, which leads in voter support. But he avoids that party's xenophobic polemics, as he walks the line between keeping People's Party supporters and attracting Freedom Party backers.

Acceptance of Kurz's demands reflects recognition by the party's power-brokers that refusal would mean an almost certain slide in voter support.

The often cantankerous People's Party-Social Democratic coalition has shown increased signs of fraying over the past months. Still, Social Democratic Chancellor Christian Kern had resisted People's Party calls to move up elections from next year.

But as People's Party officials gathered Sunday he told state broadcaster ORF: "I assume that there will certainly be an election this fall."

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Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin, and AP video journalist Philipp Jenne in Vienna, contributed to this report.

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