Austrian president calls for September polls in wake of scandal
Story Code : 795210
Just days before key EU elections, Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was forced to resign in disgrace Saturday following explosive revelations from a hidden camera sting.
Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz -- whose 18-month coalition with Strache's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) 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," President Alexander Van der Bellen told journalists on Sunday after meeting Kurz.
Van der Bellen will hold further talks with other party leaders to fix a date, setting the scene for months of campaigning.
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 recordings -- of unknown provenance -- Strache is seen talking to a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.
The pair discuss how she could gain control of the country's largest-circulation tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung, and install editorial staff who would help the FPOe's 2017 election campaign.
In return, Strache held out the possibility of awarding public contracts.
Elsewhere in the footage, he discusses remodeling Austria's media landscape to more closely resemble that of Viktor Orban's Hungary, and appears to hint at ways political donations could be made to escape legal scrutiny.
'Enough is enough'
Kurz said Saturday the latest revelations were the final straw after a string of FPOe-related scandals dogging the government.
"Enough is enough," he told a press conference in Vienna on Saturday, estimated to have been watched by more than two million people -- nearly a quarter of the country's population.
Strache for his part admitted in his emotional resignation statement that he had been "stupid" and "irresponsible", but also sought to portray himself as the victim of a "targeted political attack".
Controversial FPOe Interior Minister Herbert Kickl posted a defiant statement on Facebook Sunday blaming Kurz for the coalition's collapse.
"We are ready for this confrontation," Kickl said.
The opposition has demanded that Kickl and all other FPOe ministers be fired immediately but neither Van der Bellen nor Kurz commented on whether they would be allowed to stay, nor on who would replace the vice-chancellor.
FPOe leaders were also due to meet on Sunday to confirm leadership changes after Strache's exit.
The damning revelations, which saw protesters take to the streets on 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 FPOe plays a key part.
The FPOe's lead MEP candidate Harald Vilimsky had been due to attend a rally organized by Salvini in Milan on Saturday, but cancelled the trip because of the scandal.
A Russian senator on Sunday rejected any possible implication of Moscow in the affair.
"You cannot draw a Russian link to this clearly ugly incident," ruling party senator Oleg Morozov said.
Politicians 'for sale'
The turmoil in Vienna will reignite debate on the European center-right about the possible pitfalls of cooperation with the far-right.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted to the scandal by warning of the dangers of far-right politicians "for sale", who wanted to "destroy the Europe of our values".
The possibility of a fresh coalition with the FPOe is already stirring controversy in the OeVP leadership, with the party's lead candidate for the European elections Othmar Karas speaking out against such a prospect.
Observers said the dramatic events of the past two days were almost a re-run of the last time that the OeVP and FPOe went into coalition, in 2000.
Then as now, after only two years the OeVP chancellor -- in that case Wolfgang Schuessel -- felt compelled to call snap elections due to strife with his FPOe coalition partner.
In 2002, the OeVP emerged strengthened from the elections but it remains to be see if Kurz, like Schuessel before him, can avoid damage from the fallout.
Kurz said on Saturday that he had found the string of FPOe-related scandals "difficult to swallow".
Beate Meinl-Reisinger, leader of the liberal NEOS party, responded by tweeting: "He's the one who put (the FPOe) in such a strong role."
"Who had to put up with this extremist rubbish and abuse of power? Kurz? No, us Austrians!" she said.