Canadian billionaire Stronach to end foray into Austrian politics

Reuters
File photo of election poster of Austro-Canadian businessman and billionaire Stronach
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File photo of a nun walking past an election poster of Austro-Canadian businessman and billionaire Frank …

By Georgina Prodhan

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austro-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach is to retire from Austrian politics after a year-long adventure that culminated in a poor poll showing and the near self-destruction of his party.

The maverick 81-year-old industrialist scored a disappointing 6 percent in national elections last month, after voter disenchantment with the centrist status quo had propelled him as high as 10 percent in early opinion polls.

Stronach, a self-styled anti-establishment politician, lost ground after an embarrassing series of television debates, in which he warned of the danger of Chinese troops "marching in" to Austria, and voiced support for the death penalty.

Amid disarray in his Team Stronach party in the wake of the election and multiple firings of top party officials, the founder of car-parts firm Magna International and Austrian parliamentarian said he had had enough.

"I would still like to live a little," he told ORF television late on Tuesday.

"Sooner or later... I will stand aside," he said in heavily accented German, adding that this meant in half a year, a year, or possibly as long as a year and a half.

Stronach had campaigned on the strength of his personality and a mantra of "truth, fairness and transparency" with which he promised to disrupt the cozy alliance of Social Democrat (SPO) and conservative parties that dominates Austrian politics.

His departure will mark the end of a rare attempt to break the mould in a country that has been governed by centrist coalitions, in close partnership with business and labor leaders, since the 1950s. It is also likely to help the far right, from whom he picked up many protest votes.

COALITION TALKS

The SPO and conservative People's Party began official coalition negotiations on Tuesday, after scraping to a combined majority of 51 percent in the September 29 national poll - their worst result ever.

Team Stronach won 11 of the 183 seats in parliament.

Stronach sneered at career politicians and proposed electing citizen representatives and limiting terms of political office, as well as promising lower business taxes and drastic cuts to Austria's thriving bureaucracy.

He said he had entered politics only to provide a service to his native country, where he grew up during the Great Depression and World War Two before seeking his fortune in Canada.

Stronach spent 11 million euros ($15 million) of his own money on a presidential-style election campaign, openly flouting campaign-financing limits, and was accused of buying members of parliament from other parties - a charge he denied.

But his frequent and lengthy absences from Austria for tax reasons - he flew back to Canada soon after the elections and before he could attend an audience with the president - earned him hefty criticism.

He frequently lashed out at the media, claiming they constantly misrepresented him, as well as at politicians who, he said, lacked any understanding of business.

Stronach built up Magna into an international corporation after leaving Austria for Canada as a penniless 21-year-old tool

maker in 1954.

Despite debacles that included confusion about who represented the party - at one time there were two politicians both claiming to be party chief in the province of Carinthia - Stronach said his team would continue to fight for his values.

He said he would remain an adviser to the party.

(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

(This story was refiled to change currency conversion in the 12th paragraph to million from billion)

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