Austrian president calls for September poll in wake of scandal
Vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache has been forced to resign following explosive revelations from a hidden-camera sting
Vienna — Austria’s President Alexander van der Bellen on Sunday called for fresh elections in September after a corruption scandal embroiling the far-right brought down the coalition government spectacularly.
Just days before key EU elections, vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was forced to resign in disgrace on Saturday following explosive revelations from a hidden-camera sting.
Conservative chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose 18-month coalition with the far-right Freedom Party had been held up as a European model, reacted by pulling the plug on their union.
“My preference is for early elections in September, if possible the beginning of September,” Van der Bellen said on Sunday after holding talks with Kurz.
The president will hold further talks with other party leaders over the next weeks to fix a date.
The dramatic developments followed the publication by two German newspapers on Friday of footage from a sophisticated hidden-camera sting months before Austria’s last parliamentary elections in 2017.
In the tapes — of unknown provenance — Strache is seen openly discussing the possibility of awarding public contracts in return for campaign help for the Freedom Party from a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.
The woman says she specifically wants to gain control of the country’s largest-circulation tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung.
Strache is seen suggesting that new owners could make staff changes and use the paper to help his party in its election campaign.
‘Enough is enough’
Kurz said on Saturday the latest revelations were the final straw after a string of Freedom Party-related scandals dogging the government.
“Enough is enough,” the chancellor said in Vienna.
Strache for his part insisted in his emotional resignation statement that he had been the victim of a “targeted political attack” but also described his own actions as “stupid” and “irresponsible”.
The Freedom Party was also due to meet on Sunday to confirm leadership changes after Strache’s exit.
Neither Van der Bellen nor Kurz commented on who would replace the vice-chancellor in the run-up to elections and whether top Freedom Party politicians — including controversial interior minister Herbert Kickl — would be allowed to stay in post.
The damning revelations, which caused protesters to take to the streets in Vienna on Saturday, broke as the campaign for European parliament elections on May 23-26 was nearing its climax.
They risk dealing a blow to a far-right populist alliance marshalled by Italy’s interior minister Matteo Salvini and in which the Freedom Party plays a key part.
Politicians ‘for sale’
The Freedom Party’s lead European parliament candidate Harald Vilimsky had been due to attend a rally organised by Salvini in Milan on Saturday, but cancelled the trip because of the scandal.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted to the news out of Austria by warning of the dangers of far-right politicians “for sale”, who wanted to “destroy the Europe of our values”.
The tapes contained a litany of other embarrassing material for Strache, and analysts predicted setbacks for the Freedom Party from its current position in the polls.
As well as repeating unsubstantiated rumours about Kurz, Strache also hinted at ways political donations could escape legal scrutiny by going to a foundation linked to the Freedom Party.
Elsewhere in the recordings, he discussed the possible part-privatisation of public broadcaster ORF and expressed admiration for the media landscape in neighbouring Hungary, where media plurality has been severely curtailed under nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
Observers said the dramatic events of the past two days were almost a rerun of the last time the centre-right People’s Party and the Freedom Party went into coalition, in 2000.
Then as now, after only two years the People’s Party chancellor — in that case Wolfgang Schuessel — felt compelled to call snap elections due to strife with his Freedom Party coalition partner.
In 2002, the People’s Party emerged strengthened from the elections but it remains to be seen if Kurz, like Schuessel before him, can avoid damage from the fallout.