Austria’s Freedom Party elects Norbert Hofer as new leader

BERLIN (AP) — Austria’s far-right Freedom Party elected former minister and presidential candidate Norbert Hofer as its leader on Saturday as it seeks to return to power in a Sept. 29 national election, trying to move beyond the scandal that brought down the previous administration.

The Austria Press Agency reported that more than 98% of delegates at a party congress in Graz backed Hofer, who ran unopposed. Hofer was designated for the job after Heinz-Christian Strache, the party’s leader of the past 14 years, resigned in May following the publication of a video in which he appeared to offer favors to a purported Russian investor.

The video prompted center-right Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to pull the plug on his coalition with the Freedom Party, in which Strache was vice chancellor. Kurz was then ousted in a no-confidence vote, and a non-partisan interim administration under Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein is currently running the country.

Hofer told delegates that “we’re back.”

The Freedom Party hopes to return to government with Kurz’s People’s Party after the election, but its chances of doing so are uncertain.

Hofer, 48, narrowly lost Austria’s 2016 presidential election to the liberal Alexander Van der Bellen, served as transport minister under Kurz and is relatively moderate, at least in tone. A recent party election ad showed him undergoing relationship counseling with an actor portraying Kurz and declaring that “often it just takes a little shove to carry on together.”

However, former Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, a hard-line, sharp-tongued figure who was a source of friction with the People’s Party in the last government, is also a key figure in the new Freedom Party lineup as head of its parliamentary group. Hofer praised him Saturday and said the party is fighting to make him interior minister again.

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