Austrian government nears collapse as far-right ministers resign

Austria's government was on the brink of collapse Monday as ministers from the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) announced their resignation and hinted at toppling conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in a no-confidence vote.

Vienna, 20 May 2019 (dpa/MIA) – Austria’s government was on the brink of collapse Monday as ministers from the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) announced their resignation and hinted at toppling conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in a no-confidence vote.

Austria’s deepening political crisis was triggered last week by a covert video of a sting in which FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache meets a woman posing as a wealthy Russian who is considering a party donation, telling her about potential public contracts and ways to evade the party funding law.

While Strache stepped down as vice chancellor and party chief on Saturday, Kurz forced out FPOe interior minister Herbert Kickl on Monday evening, arguing that Kickl stood in the way of a credible investigation into the scandal.

“I firmly believe that what we need now is complete transparency and total, independent clarification,” Kurz told reporters.

The FPOe retaliated by pulling out of the government entirely, leaving Kurz without ministers for foreign affairs, defence, labour and infrastructure.

Kurz said he would appoint experts and senior ministry officials to run a caretaker government until early elections, which are expected to take place in September.

However, Kickl did not rule out that the FPOe would vote against Kurz and his interim cabinet in an upcoming no-confidence vote, which has been called by the left-wing Jetzt (Now) party.

“It’s common sense that it would be difficult for us to declare our confidence in someone who has just made clear that he has no confidence in us,” Kickl told Austrian news agency APA.

Kurz’s political prospects received a further blow from social democratic opposition leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner, who demanded that Kurz step down along with his entire cabinet.

This would be the only “good and sustainable solution” to Austria’s crisis, she said before heading into a meeting with the 32-year-old chancellor.

Kurz and Strache were swept to power by the 2017 elections with an anti-immigration policy platform.

Kurz’s People’s Party (OeVP) and the FPOe pushed through a series of restrictions against migrants and asylum seekers and started lowering Austria’s taxes.

However, the OeVP was repeatedly irritated by revelations about the far-right’s connections with xenophobic extremists, and about neo-Nazi incidents among the FPOe’s lower ranks.

The video that was published on Friday by two German media outlets, the Spiegel magazine and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, was the last straw, Kurz indicated.

The video shows Strache and another senior FPOe politician in a holiday villa in Ibiza amid an alcohol-fuelled six-hour-long encounter with the woman who claimed to be a niece of a Russian oligarch.

It is unclear who recorded the meeting a few months before the 2017 Austrian elections.

The covert video has boosted support for Kurz’s OeVP and the social democratic opposition, according to a survey that was published on Monday.

The OeVP currently stands at 38 per cent, 4 percentage points more than in a previous poll in early April, the Research Affairs institute reported. The FPOe fell 5 points to 18 per cent, while the Social Democratic Party climbed 2 points to 26 per cent.

The new survey sees the liberal Neos on 9 per cent and the Greens on 5 per cent, while Jetzt would lose its seats in parliament if elections were held now.

The Kremlin shrugged off suspicions of involvement in the scandal.

“It does not concern the Russian Federation, nor its president, nor its government,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. “We do not know who this woman is, whether she is Russian or not,” he said in comments carried by state news agency TASS.

In Brussels, the European Commission said it has “full trust” in Austria’s democratic institutions to set right the political scandal.

“We followed in disbelief as the 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,” said commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas.

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