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In Austria, Magna founder Frank Stronach reinvents himself as political rebel

Frank Stronach’s talks to media when arriving at the parliament for a TV discussion during national elections in Vienna, Austria, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013. His party, Team Stronach was just one of the forces that rattled Austria’s recent election. It cleared the 4-per cent hurdle needed to get into parliament with 5.8 per cent of the votes in Sunday's elections.

Matthias Schrader/AP

To Canadian ears, there's something comical about the idea of Frank Stronach leading an anti-establishment movement. After all, few are better known in the corridors of Canadian power than Mr. Stronach, the billionaire founder of auto-parts giant Magna International. He counts former premiers and prime ministers among his friends. His daughter, Belinda, was a federal cabinet minister.

But at the age of 81, Mr. Stronach has returned to his native Austria wearing the cape of a political rebel. And in the wake of an election that leaves his newly founded party, Team Stronach, as a potential kingmaker in Austria's next coalition government, he's trying out his best John Wayne impression. Any other party that wants his help – specifically the 11 parliamentary seats he can deliver – will have to meet him on his terms.

"I don't need anything from anybody," he said by telephone last week, in English tinged with an Austrian accent (he also speaks German with an English accent after six decades in Canada). "I've spent my own money on this because I have a conscience. As you know, I've done very well in business."

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Team Stronach was just one of the forces that rattled Austria's election on Sept. 29. The country's main pro-European parties, the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the centre-right People's Party, who governed together in a coalition before the election, both saw their share of the vote slide, while the populist right, represented by the anti-immigration Freedom Party, as well as the euroskeptic Team Stronach, posted gains.

Mr. Stronach says he spent $25-million of his own coin – a fraction of his estimated $1.3-billion wealth – on a Ross Perot-style campaign intended to shake up a political system he says has barely changed since he left Austria in 1954. However, his erratic performance as leader during and since the campaign is seen as having cost his party votes, and may now scupper its chances of being included in any coalition government.

Despite his bravado, the election was something of a personal defeat for the billionaire, whose party received about 6 per cent of the popular vote. Polls earlier in the campaign had suggested Team Stronach could capture upwards of 10 per cent.

Austria is now expected to face weeks or months of uncertainty while the parties negotiate over the shape of the next government. While another coalition between the SDP and People's Party remains the most likely outcome, the People's Party says it wants to explore other coalition possibilities first. And to form a government without the SDP, they need Team Stronach.

Mr. Stronach, who told The Globe and Mail immediately after the vote that he was uninterested in entering a coalition with "professional politicians," has since softened his stance and said he would consider joining a coalition that agreed to the main principles of his party's platform – parliamentary reform, balanced budgets, a simplified tax system and smaller government.

While his stump speeches focused on the need to pull Austria out of the euro, Mr. Stronach said he was willing to leave the issue out of coalition talks.

"I think the euro will self-destruct," he said. "We will still work on [pulling Austria out of the euro], but it's not a primary goal."

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One possibility is a right-wing government involving the People's Party, Freedom Party and Team Stronach. Mr. Stronach acknowledged that such a coalition would be controversial in the eyes of many. The European Union, as well as the United States and Israel, reduced contacts with Austria after the Freedom Party – led by the late Jorg Haider – formed a coalition government with the People's Party in 2000.

But leaders of both the People's Party and the Freedom Party both expressed doubts late last week about Team Stronach's suitability as a coalition partner. The party's future appears to be in question after Mr. Stronach – who has already left Austria for tax reasons – fired his party's parliamentary leader and several regional party chiefs following the election.

"I don't think so that Team Stronach is a realistic partner for a coalition because he and his party seem not to be reliable or calculable," said Peter Hajek, a Vienna-based pollster.

For his part, Mr. Stronach said that his party would only join a right-wing coalition if he saw "greater political effort to say 'We accept all international human-rights agreements, etc.'" from the Freedom Party. "They have to make a commitment. They have to prove that they're not too much to the right," he said.

Team Stronach's popularity seemed to sag during the campaign as Austrians got to know more about the deep-pocketed founder. Mr. Stronach last ran for elected office in 1988, under the banner of the Liberal Party of Canada, when he was defeated in his bid to become MP for York-Simcoe.

Mr. Stronach bewildered many Austrians by suggesting the country should bring back the death penalty to deal with "professional hit men." He also struggled in televised debates, at one point musing aloud about the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Austria.

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"He performed really poorly, coming across as either poorly informed – not having read his own programme – or really confused or really combative," said Reinhard Heinisch, a professor of Austrian politics at the University of Salzburg. "He tried to run a common-sense campaign. Unfortunately for him, it didn't come across that well."

Prof. Heinisch said the future of Team Stronach will be decided by how much time and money Mr. Stronach will continue to invest in it after the election.

Despite his desire to avoid having to pay taxes in Austria, Mr. Stronach said he does intend take his seat in the country's parliament. "I won't be there all the time," he admitted.

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About the Author
Senior International Correspondent

Mark MacKinnon is currently based in London, where he is The Globe and Mail's Senior International Correspondent. In that posting he has reported on the Syrian refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic State, the war in eastern Ukraine and Scotland's independence referendum.Mark recently spent five years as the newspaper's Beijing correspondent. More


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