Austria’s Kurz wrangles with far right and risk of parliamentary axe

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz delivers a news conference at the presidential office at Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria, May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz sought on Tuesday to oust the far-right interior minister who he says is compromised by the scandal that wrecked their coalition, while trying to avoid a chain reaction in which lawmakers could sack him too.

Kurz pulled the plug on his 17-month-old coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) over the weekend, after FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache was caught in a video sting discussing fixing state contracts and how to circumvent party financing laws. A snap election is expected in September, after either parliament or the president dissolves parliament.

Strache, whose party has been one of the most successful nationalist and anti-immigration movements in Europe, securing more than a quarter of the vote and taking the interior, foreign and defence ministries, denies doing anything illegal. It remains unclear who was behind the recording, made in 2017.

Kurz, the 32-year-old leader of the conservative People’s Party (OVP), has pledged a thorough investigation into any wrongdoing, and said on Monday he would ask President Alexander Van der Bellen to sack the FPO’s interior minister, Herbert Kickl, because as FPO chairman in 2017 he was responsible for party finances.

Doing that, however, risks setting off a chain reaction that could force Kurz and what is effectively his caretaker government from office ahead of time, damaging the young conservative star’s image as he seeks to isolate himself from the scandal and project himself as a strong leader.

Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and President Alexander Van der Bellen deliver a news conference at the presidential office at Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria, May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger


“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 the mass-circulation newspaper Oesterreich, saying his party would back a no-confidence motion if one were brought.

“Whenever the extraordinary session happens, those who give trust receive trust and those who give distrust get distrust.”

New FPO leader Norbert Hofer, however, has said he will await ongoing talks involving all parliamentary parties and Van der Bellen, whom Kurz was due to meet at 12:30 p.m. (1030 GMT).

The FPO accuses Kurz of playing power politics and has said it will pull its ministers out of the lame-duck government if Kickl is forced out. Kurz has said they would be replaced by technocrats or experts rather than politicians.

Lawmaker Peter Pilz confirmed that he would put forward a motion of no confidence in Kurz at a special session of parliament on Monday, the day after European parliament elections. But larger parties’ positions remained unclear.

“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 party to rival the Greens, told Reuters.

Pamela Rendi-Wagner, leader of the Social Democrats, the second-biggest party in parliament, said on Monday that if technocrats were brought into the cabinet, then all ministers, including those from Kurz’s party, should be replaced.