Europe

Eurosceptic billionaire Frank Stronach scorns old-style Austrian politics

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Media captionFrank Stronach explains his philosophy to Bethany Bell

An 80-year-old Eurosceptic billionaire is threatening to upset the cosy consensus that has dominated Austrian politics for decades.

Frank Stronach, who founded the global car parts firm Magna International, set up his own political party - Team Stronach - in Austria last September.

Born in Austria to a working-class family, he spent many years in Canada, where he made his money - around US$1.2bn (£770m; 906m euros) according to Forbes Rich List. He also ran unsuccessfully for the Canadian parliament in 1988.

Mr Stronach is positioning himself as a more businesslike alternative to the coalition of centre-left and centre-right parties which has traditionally ruled Austria.

Many of Austria's European neighbours are also seeing strong challenges from anti-establishment parties, fuelled by frustration over the eurozone crisis.

'New principles'

Mr Stronach is paying for the campaign with his own money and says he expects to spend around 24m euros by the general elections in September.

"Austria needs a new set of principles," he told me at a North American-style golf club complex near Magna International HQ at Oberwaltersdorf, close to Vienna.

"We want to fight against professional politicians. For sixty years this government has lost huge amounts of money."

"They've got no clue about business," he said. "If the economy doesn't work, nothing else does."

Mr Stronach is particularly scathing about the euro.

"It never had a chance that it worked, for the simple reason we know the southern states were basically agricultural states."

"The northern states were industrial countries - so gigantic differences. A common currency just doesn't work. Not in Europe."

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Image caption The Social Democrats are in a ruling coalition but some voters want new faces at the top

But when I asked him if he would move to take Austria out of the euro, he was a little vague.

"No, I would say that every country would sort of have their own euro, so they could value and devalue their own currencies. But I'm sure every Austrian would say an Austrian euro is worth more than a Greek euro."

Mr Stronach is also promising lower corporate taxes, a scaled-down administration and the election of non-professional citizen politicians to parliament.

His message seems to have struck a chord with some in Austria.

Team Stronach has been scoring around 10% in recent opinion polls.

In recent elections in the southern province of Carinthia it scored almost 11%, taking votes from the far-right Freedom Party in its stronghold.

His party stumbled in regional elections in Tyrol, where it failed to get into the provincial parliament. But Team Stronach could pose a threat to a renewal of the grand coalition between the centre-left and centre-right in the upcoming general elections.

'Disillusioned Austrians'

Team Stronach has already made it into Austria's national parliament, even though it has not run in a general election yet. In November, a handful of MPs from the BZOE, a far-right party set up by the late Austrian politician Joerg Haider, defected to Team Stronach.

Austria, which has strong economic ties to Germany and the lowest unemployment rate in the EU, has not been as badly hit by the euro crisis as other European countries.

The political analyst Thomas Hofer says many in Austria are unlikely to move away from the coalition politics which has kept their country prosperous and switch to a billionaire with little political experience. But he says Mr Stronach's message is finding favour with some disillusioned Austrians, who are frustrated by the lack of alternatives to the grand coalition.

"I think he is hitting a nerve in Austria. Going up against the established party system is certainly popular because there is a great deal of dissatisfaction in this country with some of the old parties."

"But in terms of tone he has been a little bit extreme in his first few months as a politician. Look at his suggestions for the national euros. People know from their own experience that that just won't work."

'One-man protest party'

Thomas Hofer says he does not think the Stronach phenomenon will last more than a few years.

"I think this party doesn't have a long and bright future because it is very much based on the personality of Frank Stronach. He is limiting the scope of the Freedom Party; he's getting many of those protest votes out there."

"But as soon as he leaves the party, there's nobody else who can take over. If there is no Stronach there is no party."

Mr Stronach, who has ruled out running for prime minister, insists Team Stronach is not a protest party. He says he wants to be able to tell his grandchildren he helped "create a better society".

But other Austrians, like the journalist Herbert Lackner from Profil Magazine, are more cynical about the reasons why a retired billionaire might want to enter the political fray.

"He is a bit bored, he's 80 years old and has nothing to do."

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