(Bloomberg) — Hans Peter Doskozil emerged victorious from a tumultuous leadership race within Austria’s opposition Socialist Party, pledging to shield workers from the impact of inflation in a bid to bolster support ahead of parliamentary elections due next year.
The governor of Burgenland state on Austria’s eastern border with Hungary, Doskozil promised to return to the party’s roots: improving the prospect of home ownership and boosting access to healthcare, while fighting corporate interests.
“People expect solutions for their everyday problems,” Doskozil told a congress of the party in Linz, central Austria. The party’s only obligation is to serve people, not industrialists, he said.
Austria has one of the highest inflation rates in the euro area, in part due to a flood of government handouts made to ease the impact of higher energy costs. It’s also one of the continent’s hottest property markets, with home prices having risen 77% in the past decade, according to central bank data.
An outspoken critic of immigration, Doskozil will look to reverse a decline in support that’s left the Socialists tied in recent polls with Chancellor Karl Nehammer’s People’s Party, vying for second place behind the far-right Freedom Party. But first, he will need to unite his own ranks after a messy leadership battle.
Read: Straw Poll Keeps Austrian Socialists in Limbo as Chief Outvoted
Doskozil barely inched ahead of his two competitors in a straw poll among party membership in May that led to the resignation of his predecessor and long-time opponent Pamela Rendi-Wagner. Andreas Babler, a firebrand socialist and small-town mayor who had emerged as an unlikely third candidate in the leadership race, lost out at the party congress on Saturday. Doskozil won 53% of the vote to Babler’s 47%.
Traditionally one of Austria’s two major political groups, the Socialists have been out of government since 2017 and have failed to capitalize on dissatisfaction over rising prices and a string of government corruption scandals. Parliamentary elections are due in the second half of 2024.
The Freedom Party, which has criticized sanctions against Russia and Austria’s strict vaccination policies during the Covid pandemic, is leading polls with about 28% backing. The ruling conservative People’s Party has struggled to raise its support after the corruption investigations led to the ouster of ex-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in 2021.
Doskozil ruled out a potential coalition government with the Freedom Party and the People’s Party. He also vowed to enact a better immigration policy and to lure back voters that have turned to the radical right.
The Socialists will also have to contend with a rising Communist Party, which has outperformed in recent regional elections.