Austria to hold new election after vice-chancellor resigns

Austria will hold new elections “as soon as possible”, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced after a video showing his vice-chancellor offering lucrative government contracts in exchange for political support was published by two German media outlets.

The vice-chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, resigned on Saturday as five thousand protesters massed to demand new elections. Hours later, as evening fell over Vienna’s usually quiet government district, Mr Kurz appeared before journalists to announce a snap poll.

“For the last two years, I have had to make a lot of compromises” to fulfil the coalition’s policy priorities, he said, mentioning a campaign promise to stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers to western Europe and improve the country’s economic situation.

“After this video, I can say enough is enough.”

The chancellor dismissed rumours that the leaked videotapes contained materials that would embarrass him and former Chancellor Christian Kern, of the Social Democratic Party.

“The attacks are a side issue,” he said.

Mr Kurz has come under fire from his critics for bringing the far-right FPO into government and giving them key ministries such as the ministries of interior, justice and defence and accepting the appointment of Karin Kneissl, an academic with close ties to the FPO, as foreign minister.

His critics have dubbed him the “Quiet Chancellor” because of his silence on a number of controversies that have engulfed the coalition since it came to power 17 months ago.

Earlier on Saturday, Mr Strache announced that he would resign as vice-chancellor of Austria after German newspapers published allegations that he had offered lucrative government contracts to individuals posing as representatives of a Russian oligarch in return for political support.

The head of the far-right Freedom Party said the covert video shot in Ibiza 2017 was a “trap” but that he was resigning in order to spare his party damage.

“This was a targeted attempt of political assassination, this was hired work,” he said, as thousands of protesters gathered outside the Chancellery. “The only illegal thing that happened at this night was the video itself.”

Mr Strache, and his longstanding confidant, Johann Gudenus — now an elected MP — believed themselves to have been meeting the niece of one of Russia’s most powerful oligarchs.

Excerpts of over seven hours of video footage shot in a private villa show Mr Strache appearing to suggest lucrative government construction work could be given to his interlocutors should they purchase a large stake in Austria’s largest newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, and shift its editorial content to support the FPÖ.

The footage was shot just weeks before elections that brought the FPÖ into government as junior coalition partner to the mainstream conservative Austrian People’s Party.

Mr Strache said his actions were an “alcohol-related display of machismo.” He described the video as “really embarrassing” and said its consequences were “a catastrophe”.

He told reporters that the evening in Ibiza was the only time that he met the woman in the video and that he was the only person in the FPÖ apart from Mr Gudenus who had had contact with her.

Mr Strache will be replaced by transport minister Norbert Hofer.

© Reuters

Mr Strache’s party has been mired in scandal since it became part of the government 17 months ago.

The FPÖ, which signed a co-operation agreement with Russian president Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party in 2016, controls all three Austrian intelligence services.

Shortly after the formation of the coalition government, armed police raided on the domestic intelligence services, seizing material relating to the agency’s infiltration of rightwing and neo-Nazi organisations.

Western intelligence services have since limited their co-operation with Austria.

It is not clear who the undercover individuals who set up the meeting and posed as Russian representatives were, nor why the footage has only now come to light.




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