VIENNA: Austria’s former Interior Minister Karl Nehammer was sworn in as the country’s third chancellor in as many months on Monday, after the fallout from a corruption scandal shook his ruling People’s Party.

President Alexander Van der Bellen formally swore Nehammer in at a ceremony at Vienna’s Hofburg Palace just after 1 pm local time.

The previous Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg offered his resignation on Thursday, hours after his predecessor and close ally Sebastian Kurz announced he was resigning as head of the conservative People’s Party (OeVP) following a corruption scandal.

On Friday the party nominated Nehammer, 49, to take over as party head and chancellor.

Nehammer’s first act has been to send Schallenberg back to his previous post as foreign minister and appoint new finance, interior and education ministers.

Speaking to reporters after Monday’s ceremony, Nehammer acknowledged there was an “unbelievable” amount to do to steer the country out of the partial coronavirus lockdown imposed on November 22 in response to rising case numbers.

The lockdown is due to end this weekend and Nehammer said he would consult with experts and the opposition in the coming days on the next steps. Austria is also set to make coronavirus vaccination compulsory.

According to leaks of the draft law for the measure, those refusing vaccination will be punished with a 600 euro ($680) fine which could be re-imposed every three months.

The measures have prompted much opposition, in particular from the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), and a series of large demonstrations.

Nehammer acknowledged the “strain” the virus had put on people, adding that “for many, the limit of what is bearable has been overstepped”.

While promising to listen to concerns, he appealed for unity, saying that “division harms us all as citizens”.

Van der Bellen said in order to rebuild trust the government should not “make promises it later won’t be able to keep”.

Kurz had been criticised for effectively declaring the pandemic over for vaccinated people earlier this year.

The scandal that brought down Kurz — who in 2017 became the world’s youngest democratically elected head of government at 31 — erupted in early October.

Prosecutors ordered raids at his office and the finance ministry over allegations that Kurz’s inner circle used public money to pay for polls tailored to boost his image and ensure positive coverage in a mass-market tabloid. Kurz denies any wrongdoing.

After stepping down as chancellor in October, he had been widely viewed as biding his time for a political comeback, but announced on Thursday he was leaving politics to spend more time with his partner and newborn son.

In contrast to Kurz, who concentrated power around himself and a small group of trusted aides, under Nehammer the OeVP’s traditionally powerful regional heads are expected to wield more influence.

Born in Vienna, Nehammer worked in the army for several years before becoming a communications adviser.

He became a lawmaker in 2017 and interior minister in January 2020 months before Austria faced its first jihadist attack, which killed four people last November.

Published in Dawn, December 7th, 2021

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