Rivals reach for power as Pröll bound to rehab

Austria’s second-strongest political party may get a new leader, according to press.Several newspapers are speculating that the board of the People’s Party (ÖVP) has started to negotiate who could follow Josef Pröll as chairman, finance minister and vice chancellor.The former environment minister was airlifted to a clinic in Innsbruck after experiencing breathing difficulties during a recent trip to Tyrol. Pröll was discharged last week, but is currently barred from political procedures as doctors ordered him to undergo a week-long rehab. The Lower Austrian politician was diagnosed with pulmonary embolism, a potentially deadly blockage of a lung artery.Rumours have it that ÖVP Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger is ready to take over from Pröll as party leader, while ÖVP Economy Minister Reinhold Mitterlehner is understood to be favoured by most party members as new chairman of the ÖVP which cooperates with the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) in a federal government coalition.The ÖVP’s liberal branch wants Science Minister Beatrix Karl to take over if Pröll decides to resign. Political analysts however warned that Karl would be confronted with stiff opposition by the ÖVP’s powerful conservative circles.The ÖVP suffered in popularity in the past months, according to research. Polls show that the party is neck and neck with the SPÖ and the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ). Analysts have claimed that Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ could become the strongest force for the first time if the SPÖ-ÖVP coalition splits early.The next federal election is set to take place in 2013, but many columnists are already heralding a strongly changed political landscape in case of a ballot held sooner than scheduled.SPÖ and ÖVP have been at odds for months over key issues like a possible reform of the Austrian army, the country’s bloated health sector and its schools and universities.The FPÖ is expected to benefit the most if the Social Democrats and the ÖVP end their partnership before the regular election date of 2013, while the Greens and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) are experiencing difficulties in taking advantage of the worsening climate in the coalition.