Austrian leader Kurz is ousted in no-confidence vote

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Austrian conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has had his government voted out of office following a video sting that blew up his coalition with the far right. PHOTO: REUTERS

VIENNA (NYTIMES) - Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria and his caretaker government were ousted from power on Monday (May 27) with a no-confidence vote in Parliament as the ramifications of a secretly filmed video added to the political disarray in a European country normally known for stability.

After about three hours of debate, a simple majority of lawmakers stood up in a demonstration of their withdrawal of trust from Mr Kurz, 32, making him the first Austrian leader in more than seven decades to be removed from power by his peers in Parliament.

The removal of Mr Kurz, just 17 months after he became Chancellor, came despite a gain of 8 percentage points for his conservative People's Party in the European Parliament elections.

New elections are planned for September, although that process could now be accelerated, with the country led by a caretaker government appointed by President Alexander van der Bellen in the interim.

The move caps a turbulent 10 days for Austrian politics. Mr Kurz's coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party collapsed after the party's leader, Mr Heinz-Christian Strache, resigned as vice-chancellor on May 18 after a video emerged that showed him promising government contracts to a woman claiming to be a wealthy Russian in exchange for financial support.

The meeting, which was filmed in 2017 without Mr Strache's knowledge, appears to have been a setup. But it nonetheless raised questions about the Freedom Party's ethics, given their leader's apparent willingness to trade political favours for Russian black money.

Prosecutors in Vienna said on Monday that they had opened an investigation into who was behind the video.

After Mr Strache resigned, Mr Kurz fired Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, a leading Freedom Party member, prompting the remaining far-right ministers to quit in protest.

The Chancellor called for a snap election in September and replaced the four ministers with technocrats until a new government could be voted into power.

But opposition leaders accused Mr Kurz of abusing their trust in his government by failing to work with them in organising his interim government and by refusing to apologise for his role in the political uncertainty.

"You need to earn trust," Ms Pamela Rendi-Wagner, the leader of the Socialist Party, told lawmakers before calling for the no-confidence vote.

"Cooperation and dialogue are the ground basis for trust, and trust is required for a majority in Parliament," she said. "Mr Chancellor, you and your government do not enjoy our trust."

Mr Kurz had defended his recent actions as necessary and said they had been made in consultation with Mr van der Bellen, who will now be called to name an interim chancellor who will govern until elections can be held.

"To want to oust the whole government, a few weeks before an election, that is something that I don't think anyone in this country can understand," Mr Kurz said to resounding applause from lawmakers from his party.

Austrian lawmakers often use no-confidence votes as a form of protest, but until Monday, none had succeeded.

Since the republic was founded after World War II, 185 previous votes have been brought against chancellors or their ministers; Mr Strache faced one and Mr Kickl six.

The vote was a severe blow suffered by Mr Kurz, a well-dressed, smart, young politician who turned the fortunes of Austria's conservatives by rebranding the party as a movement and swapping out its flagship black colour for turquoise.

Mr Kurz's approach, which included a savvy campaign platform that called for cracking down on illegal migration and embracing patriotism, ushered the conservatives into power with more than 31 per cent of the vote.

Even though he has been ousted as Chancellor, political observers believe that Mr Kurz will remain his party's leading candidate for the upcoming election.

That view was supported by voting on Sunday for the European Parliament, in which Mr Kurz's party won more than 35 per cent of the vote, drawing supporters from both the Socialists, the leading opposition party in Parliament, and the Freedom Party.

"He is in a good position to win and gain a couple of percentage points," said Professor Thomas Hofer, who teaches public communication at Vienna University.

From an economic point of view, Mr Kurz's government was successful in pushing through changes to the tax system and taking steps toward balancing the Budget.

This was achieved, in part, through cuts to the country's social welfare system, a trade-off that anguished many Austrians who cherished the cradle-to-grave support, especially the Socialist Party, which initiated the no-confidence vote.

But the trouble could come after the election, when the party would most likely need to find a partner with which to form a government, Prof Hofer said.

"Mr Kurz might need either the Freedom Party or the Social Democrats, and both have feelings against him that are pretty strong by now."

Some Austrians had viewed the prospect of Mr Kurz's fall as a fitting punishment for the man who brought the far-right Freedom Party into power. At the same time, others worried that it would be tantamount to handing him a narrative that he could play to his advantage in the upcoming campaign.

"It's a double-edged sword," said Mr Kurt Reinhard, a social worker in Vienna who has been on edge since Mr Kurz's government began cutting spending for social services shortly after coming to power in December 2017.

"On the one hand, we would have a caretaker government, including the chancellor, and it would rob him of a significant campaign platform," Mr Reinhard said. "On the other hand, Mr Kurz could use it to present himself as a victim, which would win him even more support."

The success of such a campaign tactic became evident on Monday, when vote tallies showed Mr Strache winning enough support to be allowed to take on a mandate in the European Parliament.

A leading member of the country's far-right Generation Identity organised an online campaign last week after realising that the former vice-chancellor remained on the ballot, urging supporters to take "revenge" on the mainstream parties by voting for Mr Strache.

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