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VIENNA (Reuters) – The eurosceptic billionaire whose success in Austrian politics is sapping support from the far-right Freedom Party rejected comparisons to its late longtime leader Joerg Haider and said he would not be content with third place in national elections.
Frank Stronach’s party – Team Stronach – won a 10th of the vote in two state elections on March 3, months after he founded it, tapping into the roughly one third of voters who oppose bailouts of euro zone laggards such as Greece and Ireland.
The car parts magnate’s anti-establishment and pro-business campaign is hurting the Freedom Party, which is also eurosceptic but is more anti-immigration in the mould of Haider, who made the hard right a national force before he died in 2008.
In an interview published on Sunday by the Oesterreich newspaper, Austro-Canadian entrepreneur Stronach said likening him to Haider was “a very unfair comparison”.
“Firstly, I am a businessman with a social vein who has created a lot of jobs. Secondly, I am not discriminatory in any way,” the 80-year-old said, pointing out that he had won a Jewish award for social commitment and justice. “Haider would never have won this prize,” he said.
“He probably contributed to changing the system but otherwise I have nothing to do with him in any way,” Stronach said.
A Gallup poll for Oesterreich showed the centrist government coalition parties comfortably ahead, with the Social Democrats (SPO) on 28 percent and the conservative People’s Party (OVP) on 25 percent.
Freedom, which fared poorly in the state elections, lost two percentage points from the previous poll to stand at 20 percent, while Team Stronach moved up a point to 10 percent and the Greens were steady at 13 percent.
Stronach told the newspaper his party had room to do much better in national elections, which are due by September. Asked if that meant overtaking Freedom for third place, he said: “Why third? I want to be first. I run to win.”
But he reiterated that he did not intend to be chancellor even if his party confounded pundits and took first place.
“I still want to live … A chancellor should be on duty 24 hours a day. I want to change the system but not become chancellor myself,” he said.
Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the Freedom Party (FPO) but facing internal rumblings about his leadership, has abandoned his original goal of winning at least a third of votes, which would allow his party could block constitutional amendments.
“It is going to be a three-way race among SPO, OVP and FPO for first place. All are between 20 and 25 percent. I want to make the jump above 20 percent,” he said in a separate interview with Oesterreich.
Asked about giving up the earlier goal, he said: “Now there is a new rival. Nevertheless we will get first place.”
Freedom won 17.5 percent of the vote in 2008 elections, the SPO got 29 percent and the OVP 26 percent.
Strache has flirted with the idea of a right-wing coalition with the OVP, but has also distanced himself from Haider. The last such government in Austria drew temporary economic sanctions in 2000 from the European Union, which said Haider’s participation legitimised the extreme right in Europe.
Reporting by Michael Shields; Editing by Pravin Char
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