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Migrant Crisis Contributes To Austria Chancellor's Resignation

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The past year's surge of migrants is remaking the politics of Europe. And perhaps the strongest evidence of that came yesterday. The longtime chancellor of Austria resigned with two years left in his term. Let's bring in reporter Kerry Skyring in Vienna to tell us more. Good morning.

KERRY SKYRING, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Werner Faymann first welcomed migrants and then he reversed himself, which seemed to make people on both sides of the issue furious. How much has that to do with his quitting at this moment?

SKYRING: It has a lot to do with it. He did pay the price basically for the dismal failure of his candidate in the presidential election and also this split in the party over his sudden change of direction on migrant policy, as you pointed out. That is, he went from open borders to putting up fences and controls on borders.

But basically his problem is the same as all the centrist politicians in Europe. Voters are unsettled by the migration, by changes in the economy and by the threat of terrorism. And populist parties say they have the answers and voters are believing them, not the centrist parties.

MONTAGNE: Well, it does seem so because there was a presidential election last month. And Faymann's party didn't even make the runoff. The winner was from Austria's right-wing Freedom Party.

SKYRING: Yes, and this is the big change here. And it was basically that someone had to go in the social Democratic party, the leader of the governing coalition, to account for that failure. And it has been Faymann. He didn't want to go. It was only when he realized he didn't have the support of his party colleagues and by leaders of the party from the various Austrian states who said they were dissatisfied with his performance but they could also see looming failure and losing their jobs in forthcoming elections. So basically the strategy that's now being followed is to try a new leader in Vienna to try and get some support back from those voters who have gone to the Freedom Party.

MONTAGNE: So what happens if - now there is this runoff - if the winner of the first round, the Freedom Party, does in fact go on to win the runoff? What are the implications of that?

SKYRING: The implications are a totally new era in Austrian politics. And I would imagine the shockwaves will roll through Europe. Basically, early elections would become very likely. The Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, says he is prepared to sack governments or not sign in chancellors. That's never been done before by the president here. He could be bluffing.

But if this does happen, then you have the start of a new era in Austrian politics, a very turbulent one. You will see protests and big divisions in both society and politics. And that will be seen throughout Europe as, yes, what happens when the centrist parties can't hold the ground against the populist parties, particularly in a time of the migrant crisis that has been rocking European politics for well over 12 months now.

MONTAGNE: That's Austria-based journalist Kerry Skyring talking to us from Vienna. Thank you very much.

SKYRING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.