Austria’s Kurz pulls plug on coalition, calls for snap election

Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache looks on as he addresses the media in Vienna, Austria, May 18, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Austria appeared headed for a snap election on Saturday after its far right party leader quit as the government’s number two, over video showing him discussing state contracts in return for favours from a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece.

News agency APA quoted sources in Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party as saying a snap election was now likely after his shock resignation as vice chancellor over the sting video, released by two German news outlets.

The Freedom Party, one of a number of anti-immigrant nationalist parties to have scored electoral success in Europe in recent years, has been the junior partner in centre-right prime minister Sebastian Kurz’s coalition for 18 months.

Kurz was expected to speak to media about the future of his government later on Sunday. President Alexander van der Bellen, who has the power to dismiss the government, will give a statement shortly after, according to APA.

Website Oe24 also said that Kurz would propose an early election, citing sources among his conservatives.

“EMBARRASSING REMARKS”

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 has repeatedly distanced himself from his far right coalition partners over lesser scandals, mostly ones involving party officials and anti-Semitism or racism. But opposition parties said the prime minister owed the public an explanation.

“This is the tip of the iceberg,” Thomas Drozda, from the opposition Social Democrats, told national broadcaster ORF.

“I expect the chancellor, who evidently has known about this video for 48 hours, and that his coalition partner is drowning in a swamp of corruption, to speak and explain his position.”

The liberal Neos party and the Greens called for a snap election.

Strache said on Saturday he was stepping down from his posts as vice-chancellor and Freedom Party chief over the video, but denied breaking any laws.

The video, released a week before European parliament elections in which nationalist groups allied to Strache’s party are expected to perform well across the continent, 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 the sometimes aggressive and abrasive Strache.

“I do not in any circumstances want my wrong behaviour to provide a pretext for the government to collapse,” Strache said.

In the footage, he appears to offer to funnel contracts towards a company in exchange for political and financial support. He 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. In an at-times rambling defence of his behaviour, Strache also apologised for flirting with the woman, whom he describes as attractive in the recording.

“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.