For years, Frank Stronach and Magna International Inc. financed a scholarship program called If I Were Prime Minister, which had nothing to do with auto parts.
But it could provide useful ideas for Mr. Stronach’s latest venture – trying to reshape the political landscape of Austria.
The entrepreneur, who created an auto parts company that is now a global powerhouse, plans to establish a new political party that will advocate taking the country out of the euro, cutting bureaucracy and reforming the tax system in the small, central European nation.
It’s the latest project for the Austrian native, who arrived in Canada with a couple hundred dollars in his pocket in 1954 and has always had grand visions, some of which became successful and some of which evaporated. He has time on his hands after selling his stake in Magna’s electric-vehicle business back to the company earlier this month.
He also has money to finance a political party, with the $74.7-million he will receive from the electric-vehicle business sale adding to the $863-million he picked up when he sold his multiple voting shares in Magna and gave up control of the company in 2010.
“In Europe, there’s enormous problems,” Mr. Stronach, who will turn 80 next month, said in a telephone interview from Austria.
Although reports there quoted him as saying he would run for office, he told The Globe and Mail that he will be the thinker behind the party, establishing the programs and the principles that will guide it.
“I do not seek the highest office,” he said. “I don’t need any title.”
His concern, he said, is the “super bureaucracy” building up in Europe as a result of the European Union and the single currency, which he believes is creating a socialist monolith that is stifling entrepreneurs and capitalists.
The party does not have a name yet, but one member of the Social Democrats, which is part of a two-party governing coalition, has agreed to leave that party and join Mr. Stronach’s movement.
Cynicism and distrust of traditional parties is rampant in the country, said Peter Fitzmaier, a professor and political analyst at Danube University just outside Vienna.
“About two-thirds of the voters mistrust parties in government, but also 60 per cent mistrust parties in opposition,” he noted. “So any new party has a chance, you just have to be different.”
That mistrust of politicians will help Mr. Stronach, said one high-ranking executive in Austria who follows the political scene closely and noted that corruption scandals are one of the causes of the cynicism.
“He is a brand. He is amazingly well-known. He is a big story. He is a successful businessman who can prove that he doesn’t need money,” the source said.
His age, however, likely works against him – he will be 81 when the election is held next year.
In addition, voters who are in favour of cleaning up corruption and modernizing the political system in Austria are also those who favour remaining in the European Union and keeping the euro, the source said.
Klaus Koefer, the member of parliament who agreed to join the new party, is not well known nationally, Mr. Fitzmaier said, which means that so far, Mr. Stronach has failed to attract any political heavyweights to his cause.
When he was chairman of Magna, Mr. Stronach often used the company’s annual meetings to lecture governments on political issues.
He ran in the 1988 federal election as a Liberal candidate but was defeated.
His daughter Belinda Stronach was more successful, becoming a Conservative MP before switching to the governing Liberals and then leaving politics in 2007.