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Rail chief will be Austria's next chancellor, president says

VIENNA (Reuters) - Rail boss Christian Kern will become Austria’s next chancellor, the country’s president confirmed on Friday, after the Social Democratic Party (SPO) united behind him as its choice to lead the embattled coalition government.

Austrian railways OeBB Chief Executive Christian Kern addresses a news conference in Vienna, Austria, April 22, 2016. REUTERS/Heinz-Peter Bader

Werner Faymann stepped down as chancellor on Monday, bowing to a party revolt that erupted after the SPO’s candidate in Austria’s presidential election crashed out in the first round, far behind the winner from the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO). A second round will be held on May 22.

Kern, widely admired for his skills as a manager who oversaw the mass transit of asylum seekers to Germany at the height of the migration crisis last autumn, has been keeping a low public profile and has given few clues as to his policy preferences.

A party leadership meeting on Tuesday will formally propose Kern as chancellor, after which he must be sworn in by President Heinz Fischer.

Fischer’s office ended any remnant of suspense on Friday by saying the swearing-in ceremony would also be held on Tuesday.

“Dr Kern will be proposed unanimously next Tuesday for the posts of party leader and chancellor,” acting SPO leader Michael Haeupl told a news conference after a meeting of senior party figures in Vienna.

“The party unanimously stands behind the future party leader,” Haeupl added, shortly before Fischer’s statement.

The SPO and its coalition partner, the conservative People’s Party, have suffered a series of electoral losses in recent years. They must either work together in government until 2018 or face an early parliamentary election that the FPO would most likely win.

Kern faces a difficult task in keeping the coalition alive while rallying a party divided over how to reverse its electoral fortunes without abandoning its liberal principles.

Some within the SPO are pushing for it to abandon a self-imposed ban on national coalitions with the Freedom Party.

This has been undermined by the SPO’s governor in one of Austria’s nine provinces forming an alliance with the FPO.

Others oppose a clampdown on immigration and asylum overseen by Faymann, but the head of the People’s Party (OVP), Reinhold Mitterlehner, has said that stance must be maintained or it will pull out of the coalition.

Having this week questioned whether a manager like Kern was qualified to run a government, Mitterlehner, who is also acting chancellor, seemed to have softened his stance on Friday.

“He is a very well-qualified manager, which should certainly have a positive influence on politics and the government,” he told reporters in Brussels, repeating his conditions for continuing the coalition that include some economic deregulation.

writing by Francois Murphy; editing by Toby Davis