Scandal, rumour and outrage abound this week in the Austrian People’s Party, (OVP) after its leader, once heralded as a saviour of Austrian politics, has stepped down following accusations of rank corruption.
“Sebastian Kurz finally made it to the Hofburg this week – just not as he planned. Austria’s well-groomed political wunderkind didn’t arrive in triumph at Vienna’s fabled palace, like the kaiser his critics accuse him of aping. Instead he arrived on Thursday to be sworn in as an MP under a cloud of criminal claims that, five days previously, cost him his chancellorship,” wrote Derek Scally in the Irish Times.
Kurz, 35, quit as chancellor after police raided his offices and prosecutors placed him under investigation on charges or bribery, breach of trust and corruption centred around allegedly paying a tabloid newspaper for favourable coverage.
The Guardian has called Kurz’s departure a further “blow to Europe’s centre right.” Kurtz, meanwhile, denies any wrong doing offering a statement at the weekend:
“What we need now are stable conditions,” Kurz said. “So, in order to resolve the stalemate, I want to make way to prevent chaos and ensure stability.”
It may be too late to ensure stability; according to a survey published by newspaper Kurier, support for the conservative OVP has crashed from 34 percent to 26 percent with 71 percent of the people questioned feeling that Kurz’s resignation as chancellor was justified.
Kurtz’s resignation comes after the Greens party – the junior party in the coalition government – threatened to bring a vote of no confidence against Kurz. Vice Chancellor and leader of the Greens Werner Kogler welcomed Kurz’s resignation, explaining he would be willing to work with Kurz’ proposed replacement, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg with whom he has a “very constructive” relationship.
Kurz will continue to sit in parliament as the leader of his party after calling the allegations against him baseless – something his supporters seem to be happy about.
“Supporters of the Austrian leader, long hailed as a more aggressively conservative “anti-Merkel”, hope he will continue to pull strings in his role as ÖVP president and leader of its parliamentary group after Alexander Schallenberg, a long-term Kurz ally and current foreign minister, takes over the chancellery this coming week,” Philip Oltermann writes in the Guardian.
Among Kurz’s loyal parliamentarians, the allegations are seen as a leftist plot against him while Kurz’s critics paint him as a political schemer in over his head. The irony, of course, is that when Kurz became chancellor in 2017 one of his most popular policies was a promise to clean up Austrian politics.
Kurz made a name for himself early on, bagging the role of State Secretary for Integration at just 24 before rising to the foreign ministry aged 27.
Kurz became leader of the ÖVP in May 2017 and went on to lead the party to victory in Austria’s general election later than year. At 31 years old, he was the youngest ever democratically elected leader in history, not just in Austria, but anywhere in the world.
According to supporters, one of Kurz’s greatest strengths as leader has been how he has dealt with Austria’s xenophobic and populist Freedom party by integrating its hardline immigration stances and creating a power-sharing agreement with it.
However, it wasn’t Kurz’s association with the far right group that drew suspicion from investigators. When they raided his chancellery earlier this month it was on suspicion that Kurz and his aides had taken over the party then triggered an election by illegal means.
Two investigations are currently ongoing, the first focused on Kurz’s friends being handed plumb roles, while the second alleges Kurz’s team worked with an opinion poll agency between 2016 and 2018 to create surveys favourable to him. These polls were then passed on to a friendly tabloid newspaper which received a large share of the government’s public advertisement budget in return for publishing them (allegedly).
The tabloid daily Österreich put out a statement last week denying it had taken taxpayers’ money, despite the newspaper involved not yet being named by prosecutors. One media report claims, however, that the Österreich received €1.33m (£1.13m) for advertisements placed by the finance ministry.
Alongside Kurz, nine other individuals are currently under investigation with further raided at the finance ministry and offices and homes of senior aides, with prosecutors reportedly looking into a network of conservative politicians around Kurz.
Also currently under public scrutiny are a series of text messages sent from Kurz to his aides which reportedly show awareness of backroom dealings. The Austrian public are said to be shocked by the content of these messages, in which Kurz describes rivals as “arses”. In his defence, Kurz claimed the messages were written “in the heat of the battle” and had been taken out of context.
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