Fasting Austrian politician challenges stodgy status quo

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 08, 2013 7:36 AM
Fasting Austrian politician challenges stodgy status quo

By Michael Shields

VIENNA (Reuters) - A neophyte politician who summons up energy by fasting alone for days in the Vienna Woods hopes to help crack the stodgy crust of postwar Austrian politics after leading his new centrist Neos party into parliament.

Matthias Strolz said his liberal, pro-EU party's task now was to draw on a groundswell of support for the day - not far off, he believes - when Austria's two big parties finally lose the duopoly of power they have enjoyed since World War Two.

"Our strength is combining idealism with professionalism. That is new for Austria," Strolz told Reuters this week, sitting in the ornate lower house of parliament where the Neos have nine seats after winning 5 percent of votes in a September election.

The Social Democrats and their conservative People's Party coalition partners just managed to scrape a combined majority in their worst postwar performance. The weakened heavyweights are now trying to forge a new coalition pact.

The Neos is not the first party to challenge their duopoly.

From the right, the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO) and Team Stronach, led by maverick Austro-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach, have both tapped into disenchantment with the status quo, though Stronach, 81, said last month he was bowing out after his eurosceptic party won only 6 percent in the election.

By contrast, Neos sees itself as a centrist, pro-European Union movement, though not a classic free market liberal party, which Strolz, 40, said would be unlikely to surpass 5 percent in Austria with its traditional support for high state spending.

"HAVE COURAGE"

The Neos, whose campaign slogan urged voters to "have courage", is focused on reforming Austria's underperforming education system and expensive pension regime, policies that have resonance in a country starting to question whether it can maintain its enviable level of prosperity.

The Neos, which began as a group of just 40 people in February 2012 but easily cleared the 4 percent hurdle to get into parliament, enjoy a powerful backer in wealthy industrialist Hans Peter Haselsteiner, who provided not only financial support but also credibility with older voters.

Strolz, party founder and chairman who sold his management consultancy to focus on politics, said the Neos' new style, modern organization and social media savvy gave it much more potential for when Austria's political status quo breaks up.

"I would say the potential is open on the upside and is certainly up to 20 percent," he said, noting the Neos were attracting votes from traditional supporters of the Greens and People's Party and had room to draw in those who stay at home.

"Our biggest obstacle is probably ourselves, if we make mistakes. Otherwise everything is going in our direction."

And when things get tough, the Vienna Woods are nearby.

"A week in the woods was not a big problem for me. If you have practiced then you can flip a switch in your body and make do without food," said Strolz, who also practices yoga.

"If it gets tight and stressful then I find refuge in myself. I need withdrawal and quiet."

(Editing by Gareth Jones)