Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and President Alexander Van der Bellen at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria, May 21 2019. Picture: REUTERS/LEONHARD FOEGER
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and President Alexander Van der Bellen at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria, May 21 2019. Picture: REUTERS/LEONHARD FOEGER

Vienna — The far-right Freedom Party (FPO) quit Austria’s coalition government on Tuesday after the president sided with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and sacked the hard-line FPO interior minister, paving the way for a caretaker government.

Kurz’s own fate remains uncertain, however, as the FPO has threatened to respond by backing a no-confidence motion in parliament. Losing that would hurt Kurz as he seeks to emerge statesmanlike from the scandal-tainted collapse of his government. A snap election is expected to be held in September.

Kurz set about filling the vacant FPO ministers’ posts with technocrats, but it remains to be seen if that will be enough to satisfy opposition law makers. The leader of the Social Democrats, the second biggest party in parliament, said that if technocrats are brought in, it should be for all cabinet posts.

“All those I have spoken to emphasise that they want to ensure Austria’s stability in the coming transitional period, and the unanimity on this point is a start,” President Alexander Van der Bellen, who has been holding talks with all parties in parliament, told a joint news conference with Kurz.

Kurz, whose centre-right People’s Party (OVP) is the largest in parliament, said he would propose that civil servants fill the posts by Tuesday evening at the latest. Van der Bellen is due to address the nation at 5.45pm GMT.

The president approved Kurz’s request to dismiss interior minister Herbert Kickl as what started as a scandal that felled the government turned into a power struggle between the chancellor and his coalition partners of the past 17 months.

Video footage of FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache apparently offering to fix state contracts and explaining how to circumvent party financing rules was published over the weekend, forcing him to resign and prompting Kurz to end their alliance.

Kurz has pledged a full investigation into any crimes or wrongdoing arising from the footage, which was filmed in 2017.

He argued that Kickl could not stay on as interior minister because he was FPO chair at the time, which includes responsibility for party finances, and should not therefore oversee the investigation by security services.

Will they, won’t they? 

Kickl said Kurz was only interested in regaining control of a ministry at the heart of Austria’s security apparatus, and suggested his party would back a no-confidence motion. “It would be almost naive for Kurz to assume that we, the FPO, have no distrust of him following his distrust in us,” Kickl told tabloid Österreich before Van der Bellen spoke.

New FPO leader Norbert Hofer later said, however, that the party had not yet decided.

Lawmaker Peter Pilz said he will put forward a motion of no confidence in Kurz at a special session of parliament on Monday, the day after Austrians vote in a European Parliament election.

“I am quite certain that it will succeed and that I will manage to ensure that Kurz will no longer be chancellor on Tuesday,” Pilz, an environmentalist who founded his own small rival party to the Greens, told Reuters.

The Social Democrats’ leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, said her party did not rule out bringing its own no-confidence motion. “I am concerned about Sebastian Kurz’s approach at the moment. He did not seriously try to secure a parliamentary majority for his proposal,” she said in a statement after Kurz and Van der Bellen spoke.

“I remain of the view that a government composed solely of experts is the most reliable solution in this difficult situation.”