VIENNA • Austria's Vice-Chancellor and long-time far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache yesterday said that he is stepping down over "catastrophic" video footage of him that has threatened to bring down the right-wing coalition government.
The video shows Mr Strache, the Freedom Party (FPO) leader, meeting a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch in 2017, shortly before the election that brought him to power.
In the footage published by German media on Friday evening, a week before European Parliament elections, he appears to offer to funnel contracts towards a company in exchange for political and financial support.
"It was dumb, it was irresponsible and it was a mistake," Mr Strache told a news conference, fighting back tears as he asked his wife and others to forgive him.
He maintained, however, that he had done nothing illegal and that the video was a "targeted political assassination".
"In the cold light of day, my remarks were catastrophic and exceedingly embarrassing," he said about the video, in which he also referred to party financing rules and how to work around them, but also insisted on having to act legally.
There is much speculation over whether the damage would be limited to Mr Strache or if Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz would have to call a snap election only 11/2 years after the coalition between his conservatives and the FPO was formed.
Mr Kurz has repeatedly distanced himself from the FPO over lesser scandals, mostly ones involving party officials and anti-Semitism or racism, to protect his popularity. It was unclear how far the damage from the tape would spread.
"This is the tip of the iceberg," Mr Thomas Drozda of 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. He has been hiding for 48 hours... he owes the country an explanation."
Mr Strache, in an at-times rambling defence of his behaviour, also apologised for flirting with the woman, whom he describes as attractive in the recording.
"It was typical alcohol-fuelled macho behaviour in which, yes, I also wanted to impress the attractive female host and I behaved like a bragging teenager," he said.
Mr Strache said he would be replaced by Transport Minister Norbert Hofer, his deputy within the party who narrowly lost the presidential election in 2016 and is more popular than Mr Strache.
"I do not in any circumstances want my wrong behaviour to provide a pretext for the government to collapse," Mr Strache said.
Opposition parties including the Social Democrats, the liberal Neos party and the Greens have called for a snap election.
A crowd of hundreds with left-wing placards and banners gathered on the square outside Mr Kurz's office, chanting "Snap elections now!"
Mr Kurz's coalition options are limited. Although his party remains in the lead in opinion polls it is still well short of a majority.
The only party other than the FPO with enough seats to form a majority is the Social Democrats, with which Mr Kurz has difficult relations.