Canadian throws money, ego into Austrian election

On a cool day in Eisenstadt, far from the prairies of Canada where he made his fortune, billionaire Frank Stronach rails against corrupt politicians, posing as the prodigal son who has returned to save Austria.

"We need new values. But it's difficult for young people to have values when every week they read of a new case of corruption," he tells a small crowd in the Austrian city near the border with Hungary.

The Austro-Canadian auto parts magnate, who just turned 81, has galvanised attention in his native country since he founded a new political group -- Team Stronach -- almost exactly a year ago.

His aim: to challenge the Social Democrats and conservatives who have dominated Austrian politics for almost 70 years in Sunday's general election.

"He has not been corrupted by daily political routine like many others," 17-year-old David Diernegger, who will vote for the first time and already has his sights on Stronach, told AFP at the rally.

"He can do something about the economy. We believe in him," added Melitta Babonits.

But since his campaign kicked off in earnest in August, "Frank" -- as he likes to be called -- has had a fair share of embarrassments, with the weekly Profil branding him a "Laughing stock."

His performance in televised debates -- which saw him flustered and even aggressive, repeating the same phrases in almost every public appearance -- were deemed the worst of any of the main candidates by the press.

He also made headlines with some outrageous comments: proposing to reinstate the death penalty for contract killers, and suggesting that China might invade Austria.

As a result he has seen his support tunble in the opinion polls -- from 12 percent in September 2012 to six percent this past week, just above the four percent needed to enter parliament but well below the party goal of 15 percent.

In Eisenstadt, Stronach laid out his plans: to balance the budget, curb an overblown bureaucracy, simplify tax legislation and cut the number of deputies and terms they may serve in parliament to avoid having "professional politicians."

Stronach's campaign has revolved around the economy, relying heavily on his immense success with Magna, the auto parts giant he built from scratch in Canada.

"I am lucky that I am independent and can say the things I believe need to be said," he told his supporters in his strongly Canadian-accented German.

By his own account, the political novice -- who boasts of friends like former US president Bill Clinton and talk show host Larry King -- has poured 25 million euros ($33.7 million) into Team Stronach.

At the rally, paragliders with "Frank" and "Team Stronach" emblazoned on the fabric circled above the crowd.

But Melitta Babonits's husband Mathias, a lifelong Social Democrat supporter, was adamant: "Stronach is still a blue-collar worker... I like him, he's a man who's remained grounded despite his billions."

Stronach's emphasis on his Canadian success story also struck a chord with mother-of-two Simone, 29.

"He has accomplished something, he speaks from experience, that's important. What have the other politicians achieved?"

But his campaign has not been plain sailing. When five deputies from the small far-right BZOe party defected to Team Stronach, allowing the new party into parliament without elections, allegations abounded that Stronach had paid them off.

His televised tantrums and reportedly difficult character have also been fresh fodder for commentators.

"I don't think anyone has contributed as much to this country (as I have)," Stronach has repeatedly boasted.

The creation of his party "will go down... in the history of the world," he also claimed.

An attempt to enter Canadian politics failed in 1988, but Team Stronach has already scored some successes in regional elections this year.

Stronach, who will continue to reside mainly in Canada, has said he will not take the post of chancellor even if his party is allowed to form a government.

"I have a conscience," he said when asked why he was entering politics at his age.

"When my grandchildren ask 'Grandfather, did you ever do something good for mankind?' I can say 'I tried'."