Austria heads for polls after scandal ends coalition government

Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned after the sting video was released. PHOTO: DPA Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen (left) and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz delivered a press statement after their meeting yesterday morning. Mr Van
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen (left) and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz delivered a press statement after their meeting yesterday morning. Mr Van der Bellen said he would like the election to take place in September, while Mr Kurz said he wants to continue governing the country in the interim. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned after the sting video was released. PHOTO: DPA Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen (left) and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz delivered a press statement after their meeting yesterday morning. Mr Van
Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned after the sting video was released. PHOTO: DPA

Chancellor breaks ties after video surfaces of his deputy offering govt deals for campaign funds

VIENNA • Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has ended his controversial coalition with the nationalist Freedom Party after a video compromised his junior partner.

He is seeking an early election in September in a gamble that he can govern alone.

Twenty-six hours after Austrian politics was turned upside down by the publication of secretly filmed footage showing his deputy promising government contracts in return for campaign funding, Mr Kurz said on Saturday evening that it had become impossible to continue with the nationalists.

"Enough is enough," he said. "I want to work for our beautiful country, with the support of a majority of the people, but without incidents, accidents and scandals."

The collapse of the Austrian coalition is a massive defeat for one of the most successful populist parties on the continent just a week before European Parliament elections, in which nationalists want to strike a blow against the establishment.

It is also a sign of Europe's political fragility as the decline of many mainstream parties makes coalition governments more unstable.

Mr Heinz-Christian Strache stepped down as vice-chancellor and head of the Freedom Party on Saturday, calling his behaviour exposed in the video "dumb" and "embarrassing".

The footage from a 2017 meeting in Ibiza, Spain, with a woman claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch was obtained by German publications Der Spiegel and Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

GOING IT ALONE

Enough is enough. I want to work for our beautiful country, with the support of a majority of the people, but without incidents, accidents and scandals.

AUSTRIAN CHANCELLOR SEBASTIAN KURZ

The media outlets did not disclose how they obtained the video and said they do not know the motives of the people who made it.

Yet Mr Strache's bid to rescue the coalition with Mr Kurz's People's Party by falling on his sword failed.

Mr Kurz cited other scandals over the party's links to far-right groups as well as racist slogans and poems in recent weeks that he had "swallowed" to keep the government intact until now.

The crisis also is a setback for the Chancellor's bid to neutralise the Freedom Party by embracing it.

Snap elections can be formally called either by President Alexander Van der Bellen, who said yesterday that he supports an early vote to restore trust in democracy, or by Parliament dissolving itself.

Mr Van der Bellen, who met Mr Kurz yesterday morning, said he would like the election to take place in September.

Mr Kurz said after the meeting that he wants to continue governing in the interim, but did not elaborate whether that means Freedom Party ministers except Mr Strache continue on until the vote or he is pushing to replace them.

Mr Kurz's bid to go for a government without a partner - a stint Social Democrat Bruno Kreisky last managed in the 1970s and early 1980s - may prove to be a high-stakes gamble.

 
 
 

Polls conducted before the scandalous video became public suggested he would win the most votes, but with about 34 per cent support, he is significantly short of a margin large enough to stay in power without an ally.

The People's Party's first attempt to govern with the Freedom Party failed in 2002 after two years. The conservatives won an early election at the time but needed a coalition partner to govern.

Should Mr Kurz get into a similar situation, he may have difficulties finding allies: A new coalition with the Freedom Party seems impossible after the acrimonious split.

At the same time, the 32-year-old Chancellor has burned bridges with the opposition Social Democrats, with whom his party governed in most previous coalitions since World War II. Mr Kurz built his rise to power on breaking with that tradition, so returning to the fold might hurt his credibility.

This week's European election will be a first test for him and his rivals. The People's Party is likely to win the most votes in Austria, followed by the Social Democrats.

Austria's Audit Court said on Saturday it would have questions about the Freedom Party's finances in the light of the video.

The Justice Ministry told Kurier newspaper that prosecutors will be examining the video. The Freedom Party denies any wrongdoing.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday that European politicians "must stand up to" far-right politicians "for sale" after the hidden-camera sting.

While far-right parties rejected values like protecting minorities and basic human rights, Dr Merkel told a press conference in Croatian capital Zagreb that "politicians being for sale plays a role, and we must act decisively against all of that".

BLOOMBERG, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2019, with the headline 'Austria heads for polls after scandal ends coalition govt'. Print Edition | Subscribe