Austria chancellor urges snap election after his vice resigns over Russia influence scandal
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has asked for a snap election after his Vice-Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, resigned over a corruption scandal.
Kurz’s centre-right People’s Party is in government with Strache’s far-right Freedom Party.
Conservative Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pulled the plug Saturday on his coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, after the party’s leader quit as vice chancellor over video showing him discussing state contracts in return for favors from a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece.
Strache blamed his actions on alcohol and acting like a “teenager”, saying his behaviour had been “stupid” and “irresponsible”, and that he was leaving to avoid further damage to the government.
“I have suggested to the president of the republic that new elections be carried out, at the earliest possible date,” Mr Kurz said.
“After yesterday’s video, I must say quite honestly: Enough is enough,” he said.
“The serious part of this was the attitude towards abuse of power, towards dealing with taxpayers’ money, towards the media in this country,” Mr Kurz said, adding that he had been personally insulted in the footage.
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen said a snap election was necessary after Mr Strache stepped down.
He said he had talked about this with Kurz and that they would discuss next steps on Sunday.
A crowd of thousands with placards and banners have been rallying on the square outside Mr Kurz’s office, chanting “Snap elections now!”
Mr Kurz has attempted to distance himself from past scandals surrounding the Freedom Party, mostly ones involving party officials and anti-Semitism or racism, but political opponents called for him to respond to the latest revelations.
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Thomas Drozda, from the opposition Social Democrats, told national broadcaster ORF.
“I expect the chancellor, who evidently has known about this video for 48 hours, and that his coalition partner is drowning in a swamp of corruption, to speak and explain his position.”
Mr Kurz said that this was not the first time he had had difficulties with the party.
“Even if I didn’t express myself publicly at the time, there were many situations that I found difficult to swallow,” he said.
“Enough is enough,” Kurz said in a statement to the media, listing several lesser scandals involving the Freedom Party that did not cause their coalition to collapse. He said he would propose to Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen that a snap election be held as soon as possible.
The Freedom Party, one of a number of anti-immigrant nationalist parties to have scored electoral success in Europe in recent years, has been the junior partner in Kurz’s coalition for 18 months.
Heinz-Christian Strache said earlier Saturday he was stepping down from his posts as vice-chancellor and Freedom Party chief over the video, but he denied breaking any laws.
The video, released a week before European parliament elections in which nationalist groups allied to Strache’s party are expected to perform well across the continent, showed Strache meeting the woman in 2017, shortly before the election that brought him into government.
Strache, whose party has a cooperation agreement with Russia’s ruling United Russia party, described the sting as a “targeted political assassination” and said it never led to any money changing hands. He insisted the only crime that took place was illegally videotaping a private dinner party.
In the footage, he appears to offer to funnel contracts towards a company in exchange for political and financial support. He discussed rules on party financing and how to work around them, although he also insisted on having to act legally.
“It was dumb, it was irresponsible and it was a mistake,” Strache told a news conference, fighting back tears as he asked his wife and others to forgive him.
“In the cold light of day, my remarks were catastrophic and exceedingly embarrassing,” he said. In an at-times rambling defense of his behavior, Strache also apologized for flirting with the woman, whom he describes as attractive in the recording.
“It was typical alcohol-fueled macho behavior in which, yes, I also wanted to impress the attractive female host and I behaved like a bragging teenager,” he said.