VIENNA (Reuters) - The head of Austria's rail operator, Christian Kern, has emerged as the strong favorite to become its next chancellor after the other main contender for the post of Social Democratic Party (SPO) leader pulled out of the race.
Werner Faymann stepped down as chancellor this week, bowing to a revolt inside the SPO after it suffered a heavy defeat in the first round of a presidential election last month in which the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO)'s candidate came first.
Kern, who oversaw the mass transit of asylum seekers to Germany from Hungary's border at the height of the migration crisis last autumn, was up against Gerhard Zeiler, a former head of the national broadcaster ORF and now the London-based president of media conglomerate Turner International.
But Zeiler dropped his bid on Thursday. "Gerhard Zeiler has told (acting SPO leader) Mr (Michael) Haeupl that he is not available for a confrontational candidacy against Christian Kern," a spokesman for Zeiler said in a statement.
SPO branches in seven of Austria's nine provinces, which hold significant sway in the federalized country, have expressed support for Kern ahead of a party meeting next Tuesday that will formally pick a candidate to succeed Faymann.
Kern, 50, took over the Alpine republic's state-run railway operator OBB in 2010. He previously served as spokesman for the SPO's parliamentary group and as a manager at Austrian hydropower utility Verbund.
Erich Foglar, head of the influential umbrella group for Austria's trade unions, has described Kern as having the right skills for the job.
The SPO's conservative coalition partner has made the continuation of their alliance conditional on Faymann's successor backing a tough, recently enacted asylum law, a cap on a key benefit payment and deregulation of the economy.
On Wednesday, acting Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, who heads the junior coalition partner, the People's Party, did not rule out a snap parliamentary election after Faymann's resignation, spelling out those conditions.
An OBB spokeswoman declined to comment on Kern's future.
As expressions of support for Kern multiplied within the party, the Vienna daily Der Standard ran a headline: "OBB chief is the only one who can prevent himself becoming new chancellor".
In the second round of their presidential election on May 22 Austrians will choose between the far-right Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer, who is running on an anti-immigrant, anti-EU ticket, and former Greens leader Alexander van der Bellen.
(Reporting By Shadia Nasralla and Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Francois Murphy and Mark Heinrich)