VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner, head of the conservative party in the centrist coalition government, said on Wednesday he was stepping down, having failed to quell in-fighting and speculation about the party's future leadership.
The surprise move raises the question of whether the coalition of Mitterlehner's People's Party (OVP) and Chancellor Christian Kern's Social Democrats (SPO) will collapse. He did not say what it meant for the coalition's future.
There has been persistent speculation about whether the alliance can hold as the bickering parties have struggled to overcome a widespread perception that their government is ineffective. That has fueled support for the far-right Freedom Party (FPO), which is running first in opinion polls.
Mitterlehner's resignation, which he said would take effect on May 15 as far as his posts as vice chancellor and economics minister were concerned, is likely to raise the pressure on 30-year-old Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz to take the party's reins, as many expect him to do before the next election.
"I am not a place-holder," Mitterlehner said at a hastily convened news conference, apparently referring to speculation that Kurz might take over, even though he has said he has no interest in the job at present.
A spokesman for Kurz was not immediately available for comment. Kern called a news conference for 1:30 p.m. (1130 GMT).
(Reporting by Shadia Nasralla and Kirsti Knolle; Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Tom Heneghan)