Austrian Social Democrats back new woman leader to renew party

Pamela Rendi-Wagner has been thrust into a tough role – to revive the country’s ailing centre-left

 Pamela Rendi-Wagner, on left, must redefine the party’s identity and win back the traditional working class vote captured by far-right populists. Photograph: Hans PunZ/AFP/Getty Images

Pamela Rendi-Wagner, on left, must redefine the party’s identity and win back the traditional working class vote captured by far-right populists. Photograph: Hans PunZ/AFP/Getty Images

a
 

Austria’s Social Democrats (SPÖ) are set to elect a woman as leader for the first time in the centre-left party’s 130 years, as it seeks to take on the far-right populists ruling in Vienna.

A year after crashing out of office, Pamela Rendi-Wagner was endorsed by the SPÖ front bench at the weekend and is expected to receive formal backing on Tuesday.

Just 18 months after beginning her political career, the 47-year-old Viennese woman is the second outsider in succession to head her party. In May 2016 Christian Kern, previously the executive of Austria’s rail company, was parachuted in as party leader and chancellor.

After losing power in October, Mr Kern resigned last week to run as his party’s nominee for the Social Democrat lead candidate in the European Parliament elections.

Now Ms Rendi-Wagner, an expert in tropical medicine, finds herself thrust into a new role as a paramedic for Austria’s ailing centre-left.

‘Big honour’

She described her new role was a “big honour”, and Mr Kern called her his “first choice” – but everyone knows the burden she is taking on.

Ms Rendi-Wagner studied medicine in London and taught at the University of Tel Aviv when her husband served there as Austria’s ambassador to Israel. After returning to Vienna she began working at the health ministry, where she was noticed for her technical skill, natural rhetorical ability and televisual appeal

.

Political scientist Peter Filzmaier suggests her grasp of classic SPÖ themes such as health, welfare and education gives her a competitive edge on career politicians like conservative chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his populist coalition partner Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom Party. Beyond that is her credibility as a working mother of two daughters.

“That’s an advantage in understanding credibly the life of women, particularly career women with children,” said Prof Filzmaier to Der Standard daily. He said this was “certainly no strength of Kurz or Strache”.

Migration issue

With a novelty value that will soon pass, however, Ms Rendi-Wagner will need to establish herself quickly as opposition leader, navigate the SPÖ’s intrigue-filled backrooms and unite a party divided on the migration issue, which dominates Austrian politics.

She also faces a task common to centre-left parties all over Europe: to redefine the party’s identity and win back the traditional working class vote captured by far-right populists.

Giving her the benefit of the doubt, Vienna SPÖ leader Michael Ludwig said Ms Rendi-Wagner “certainly has the talent” to learn quickly on the job.

a