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Kurz set to become Austrian chancellor, backed by nationalists

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Sebastian Kurz will become Austria's 14th postwar chancellor on Monday amid protests over his new government to be led by the conservative and nationalists.

[VIENNA] Sebastian Kurz will become Austria's 14th postwar chancellor on Monday amid protests over his new government to be led by the conservative and nationalists.

The formal inauguration by Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen is set for 11am in Vienna after Mr Kurz's conservative People's Party struck a deal with the nationalist Freedom Party on Friday. A demonstration against the Freedom Party's participation will begin in the morning, but protests aren't expected to reach the level of 2000, when the parties teamed up for the first time.

Mr Kurz and Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache presented a program on Saturday that's designed to pre-empt concerns the new administration could stray from the European Union or crush Austria's institutional setup or welfare state. A new cabinet in which 31-year-old Mr Kurz is the only experienced government official represents a bigger shift than most of the core policies, analysts said.

"The program shows a clear effort to avoid making too big waves both at home and abroad," Thomas Hofer, a political analyst and consultant in Vienna, said in a telephone interview. "Overall they are playing it defensively for the time being as to pre-empt huge protests."

When the Freedom Party, then led by the late Joerg Haider, joined the Austrian government in 2000, the nation was ostracised for several months by other states. While nobody suggests a similar reaction in 2017, Mr Kurz is still determined to "take away worries" in the EU. The Austria Press Agency reported that he will make his first trip abroad on Tuesday to Brussels, to see the EU's top leaders, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, the head of the body representing member states.

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Mr Kurz's and Mr Strache's reassurances on Europe contrasted with renewed calls for leaving the bloc by the Freedom Party's allies during a weekend meeting in Prague.  France's Front National leader Marine Le Pen congratulated Strache, saying his role in the government was "very good news, excellent news for Europe," the Associated Press reported. Dutch Freedom Party head Geert Wilders praised Strache for "achieving an excellent result" in the talks, according to Austrian radio ORF.

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder in a statement said it "is severely disquieting" that the Freedom Party enters the Austrian government.

Domestically, Mr Kurz and Mr Strache stopped short of a full-fledged attack against some institutions of the Austrian welfare state such as the Workers' Chamber, a mandatory-membership body that's close to the centre-left Social Democrats and at the core of the Austrian system of collective wage agreements.

While labour laws are set to be loosened somewhat, business associations and think tanks allied with them say the program is timid and should be reworked once four regional elections have been held next year.

"Maybe the government's restraint has to be understood tactically," said Franz Schellhorn of Agenda Austria, a business-friendly think tank. "One can only hope that this government will do significantly more than its program seems to indicate after the regional elections."

More disruptive than his policy are Mr Kurz's personnel choices. None of his conservative colleagues in the cabinet of outgoing Chancellor Christian Kern will survive the change, and none of the newly designated ministers has any experience in governing.  The most important job for European economic and financial policy goes to Hartwig Loeger, the head of Uniqa Insurance Group AG's Austrian unit, who will succeed Hans Joerg Schelling as finance minister.


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