Austria: Scandal hurts Social Democrats ahead of Oct 15 vote

In this Wednesday, Sept.27, 2017 photo , Thomas Hofer, an analyst and policy advisor, gestures during an interview with The Associated Press in Vienna, Austria. Chancellor Christian Kern’s chances of re-election next week are shrinking _ and he says has no one to blame but himself for a political scandal involving a now-disgraced adviser that he says engaged in dirty campaigning without his knowledge. “We don’t know if the chancellor himself knew about this dirty campaign,” said analyst Thomas Hofer Thursday Oct. 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)
In this Oct. 4, 2017 photo Austria's Chancellor Christian Kern of the Austrian Social Democrats, SPOE, gestures during a speech at an election campaign in Bruck an der Leitha, Austria. Austria has parliament elections on Oct. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)
In this Oct. 4, 2017 photo Austria's Chancellor Christian Kern of the Austrian Social Democrats, SPOE, gestures during a speech at an election campaign in Bruck an der Leitha, Austria. Austria has parliament elections on Oct. 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak)

BRUCK AN DER LEITHA, Austria — Chancellor Christian Kern's chances of re-election are shrinking amid a political scandal involving a now-disgraced adviser, making a rightward shift in Austrian politics more likely next week.

With the Oct. 15 vote only days away, Kern is fighting to stay on message, contrasting his Social Democratic Party's platform of fairness for the socially disadvantaged against what he portrays is a one-sided and dishonest campaign of two main rivals that exploits popular distrust of migrants.

But even though the party cut ties with Israeli political adviser Tal Silberstein nearly two months ago, following his detention in his homeland on suspicion of money laundering, a series of revelations linked to Silberstein since are threatening to turn election night into a Social Democratic disaster and opening the path to a coalition of the center-right People's Party and the right-wing Freedom Party.

No one expects the EU to impose sanctions on Austria like it did the last time the Freedom Party entered government in 2000. Still, because the party encourages anti-EU and anti-immigrant sentiment, more centrist EU governments would view such developments with concern.

In firing Silberstein, the Social Democrats said he was only "doing social science research in the field of public polling." Since then though Silberstein has acknowledged being behind several Facebook platforms crudely ridiculing main rival Sebastian Kurz of the People's Party and suggesting that he was anti-Semitic and xenophobic.

Both Kern and Silberstein insist that the adviser and a small cadre of insiders acted without Kern's knowledge. That argument is backfiring on the former head of Austria's state railway, who came into the job last year with the reputation of a crisis manager bent on restoring order to a party wracked by infighting.

While it's unclear how much the party has been hurt by the revelations, it began sliding in popularity at about the time they began surfacing.

The Social Democrats are now in a government coalition with Kurz's People's Party. Polls in mid-August put the Social Democrats in second place with 27 percent support behind the People's Party at 33 percent and the right-wing Freedom Party at 24 percent. That compares to 33 percent for the People's Party, 27 percent for the Freedom Party and 22 percent for the Social Democrats in a Spectra poll published Saturday involving 900 respondents and with a 3.2 percentage-point error margin.

"We don't know if the chancellor himself knew about this dirty campaign," analyst Thomas Hofer said Thursday. "But ... even if he didn't know, it's a bad situation for him, because it just means that he wasn't in charge of the whole campaign. And of course, this is damaging his credibility as a leader, not only of the party but of the republic."

Campaigning outside of Vienna this week, Kern sounded the usual Social Democratic themes — affordable housing, increased pensions, inheritance taxes for the rich. But he couldn't avoid mention of the dirty campaign allegations.

"We made major mistakes with the choice of (some) people," he said, adding: "I acknowledge this mistake and I am responsible for it."

___

Associated Press writer George Jahn contributed from Vienna

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