Austrian government in turmoil over video scandal

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Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, 20 May 19

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AFP

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Chancellor Kurz formed a coalition with the far-right party in October 2017

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is battling to shore up his coalition government after a video scandal forced the resignation of his far-right deputy Heinz-Christian Strache.

Undercover video showed Mr Strache discussing a deal with a Russian woman.

Mr Kurz on Monday said he was also proposing that Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, a member of Mr Strache’s Freedom Party (FPÖ), should be sacked.

The party earlier said if he were sacked, all its ministers would quit.

The scandal erupted on Friday, when the footage from 2017 was published in German media. The next day Mr Strache resigned and Chancellor Kurz – head of the centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) – said new elections would have to be held.

The video showed Mr Strache and another FPÖ official proposing to offer government contracts to a supposed Russian oligarch’s daughter. They also suggested taking over Austria’s best-selling newspaper, Kronen Zeitung, to turn it into a party propaganda organ.

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Media captionMr Strache said he resigned because he did not want to provide a pretext for the government’s collapse

Russia has denied any involvement. President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said “this is an incident that has not, and could not, have anything to do with us”.

In 2016 the FPÖ signed a long-term co-operation agreement with Mr Putin’s United Russia party, including joint efforts to “instil a patriotic spirit in the younger generation”.

The video scandal comes at a particularly awkward time for the FPÖ. Voters across the EU go to the polls on 23-26 May, in European Parliament elections widely expected to boost the numbers of far-right and other Eurosceptic MEPs.

Before the scandal broke, the FPÖ was expected to score about 20% in the European elections.

Political uncertainty

Mr Strache blamed his actions on alcohol and acting like a “teenager”, saying his behaviour had been “stupid” and “irresponsible”, and that he was leaving to avoid further damage to the government.

The FPÖ has warned that if Mr Kickl is forced out, the rest of the FPÖ ministers will quit.

Mr Kickl said before meeting Mr Kurz on Monday that he would “once again make it clear to him that what matters to me is the whole of Austria, the whole of my people, not my position”.

Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen called for early elections to be held in September.

Chancellor Kurz said his party was “shocked” by Mr Strache’s behaviour, which he called “a wrong approach to politics”.

The scandal had damaged Austria’s international reputation, Mr Kurz said.

He demanded a full investigation, saying the video might have criminal ramifications. “Anything illegal must be clarified,” he said.

A vote of no-confidence in Mr Kurz has been scheduled in parliament for Wednesday.

The BBC’s Bethany Bell in Vienna says Austria is teeming with unanswered questions:

  • Can the coalition survive until September?
  • Which parties will make up the next government?
  • Mr Kurz is popular, but unlikely to win a majority – so could there be another grand coalition with the opposition Social Democrats?
  • Why was the 2017 video about Mr Strache made? Who was behind it? And why did it appear now?

EU ‘in disbelief’

EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said the EU had “followed in disbelief as a leader of a political party was seen negotiating access to media and institutions, in exchange for funds from external benefactors who clearly do not have Europeans’ best interests at heart”.

On Saturday Mr Kurz said this was not the first time he had had difficulties with the FPÖ.

“Even if I didn’t express myself publicly at the time, there were many situations that I found difficult to swallow,” he said. “After yesterday’s video, I must say quite honestly: Enough is enough.”

What do we know about the video?

It is not known who recorded it.

Neither is it clear who set up the meeting, which allegedly took place at a villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza in July 2017 – before the FPÖ joined the new government.

The video shows Mr Strache and Johann Gudenus – another FPÖ politician – relaxing on sofas, drinking and talking to a woman who claims to be a wealthy Russian national looking to invest in Austria.

In the footage, the woman offers to buy a 50% stake in Austria’s Kronen Zeitung newspaper and switch its editorial position to support the Freedom Party.

In exchange, Mr Strache said he could award her public contracts, explaining that he wanted to “build a media landscape like [Viktor] Orban”, a reference to Hungary’s prime minister, described by critics as an authoritarian leader.

The vice-chancellor also speculates that the Russian’s takeover of Kronen Zeitung could boost support for the party to as much as 34%.

“If you take over the Kronen Zeitung three weeks before the election and get us into first place, then we can talk about everything,” Mr Strache said.

As part of the deal, he suggests the Russian woman “set up a company like Strabag”, the Austrian construction firm.

“All the government orders that Strabag gets now, [you] would get,” he continues.

Mr Strache also names several journalists who would have to be “pushed” from the newspaper, and five other “new people whom we will build up”.