VIENNA (REUTERS, AFP) – Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen said Sunday (May 19) he wanted snap elections to take place in September after the government collapsed over a corruption scandal.
“My preference is for early elections in September, if possible the beginning of September,” Van der Bellen told journalists after holding talks with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
The chancellor and president had discussed a date for an early parliamentary election and the makeup of a caretaker government, after a video sting brought down the leader of the far-right junior partners in the ruling coalition.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pulled the plug on his coalition and called for a snap election after his deputy, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, quit over a video showing him discussing fixing state contracts in return for favours.
Heinz-Christian Strache, who was filmed speaking to a woman who posed as the niece of a Russian oligarch, accepted that the video was “catastrophic” but denied having broken the law and said no money changed hand.
The scandal is a blow for one of Europe’s most successful nationalist parties just a week before an election to the European parliament in which far-right groups anticipate record success across the continent.
Kurz, a conservative who formed a coalition with the Freedom Party a year and a half ago, said the apparent video sting was the last straw in the relationship.
“After yesterday’s video I honestly have to say – enough is enough,” he said in a statement to the media, listing various lesser scandals that had previously strained their relations.
Kurz said he was proposing to President Alexander Van der Bellen that a snap election be held as soon as possible. Van der Bellen, who can dissolve Parliament, said he backed a snap election and would discuss next steps with Kurz on Sunday.
“These are shameful images and no one should be ashamed for Austria,” he said of the video. “We need in this sense to rebuild confidence anew. This rebuilding can in this case only happen with a snap election.”
Austria could set an election date as soon as the summer, according to national law, “but that could be difficult due to school holidays,” said Robert Stein, who heads the election desk at the interior ministry.
“The first possible Sunday after the school holidays would be September 15,” he said.
The makeup of any caretaker government until the snap election was also up for discussion.
The downfall of the Austrian coalition comes just a week before elections to the European Parliament and is a blow to one of the most successful of the anti-immigrant, nationalist parties that have surged across the continent in recent years.
The Freedom Party is a major part of a new nationalist grouping that aims to score record gains in the European vote.
The head of the opposition Social Democrats told broadcaster ORF she would not oppose a snap election if a Bill calling one were put to Parliament.
“DIFFICULT TO SWALLOW”
As Strache announced around midday that he was stepping down, a crowd of thousands with left-wing placards and banners gathered on the square outside Kurz’s office, chanting “Snap elections now!”. Police estimated their number at 5,000.
Kurz had repeatedly distanced himself from his far right coalition partners over lesser scandals in the past, mostly involving party officials and anti-Semitism or racism – such as one in which the deputy mayor of Hitler’s home town wrote a poem likening immigrants to rats.
“For all these successes in the past two years I had to be ready to withstand a lot and also put up with a lot, from the rat poem to the proximity to radical right-wing groups and the‘isolated incidents’ that kept coming back,” Kurz said.
“There were many situations in which I found it very difficult to swallow all that.”
The video 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.
He said he would be replaced as party leader by Transport Minister Norbert Hofer, his deputy, who narrowly lost a 2016 presidential election and is more popular than Strache.
In the footage, Strache 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. He also apologised for flirting with the woman.
“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.