Austrian leader calls an early election amid video scandal

The video showed the vice chancellor apparently promising government contracts to a Russian investor.

Associated Press

VIENNA — Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called Saturday for an early election after his vice chancellor resigned over a covertly shot video that showed him apparently promising government contracts to a prospective Russian investor.

Kurz said he would ask President Alexander Van der Bellen to set a date for a new election “as soon as possible.”

Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party which is in Austria’s ruling coalition with Kurz’s People’s Party, had resigned earlier Saturday, a day after the video was published.

The video hit a nerve amid broader concerns about ties between Russia and right-wing populist parties critical of the European Union, the more so because the Freedom Party is part of a Western government. In 2016, Strache went to Moscow to sign a “cooperation pact” with the United Russia party, which is loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Strache’s resignation was also a black eye for the populist and nationalist forces who favor tighter European immigration policies. It came only a few days before the May 23-26 elections in 28 European Union nations to fill the 751-seat European Parliament. Nationalists and populists across Europe are competing to achieve a strong showing in that vote.

At a news conference late Saturday, Kurz said talks with other officials from the Freedom Party showed they were not willing to make the changes that Kurz felt were necessary to continue the current coalition. Kurz also said a possible coalition with the center-left Social Democrats would derail the government’s program of limiting debt and taxes.

No date was immediately given for a new vote. Austria’s public ORF television reported analysts saying the vote could take place in September.

Two German publications, the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the weekly Der Spiegel, published extracts Friday of a covert video purportedly showing Strache during an alcohol-fueled evening on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza offering Austrian government contracts to a Russian woman, purportedly the niece of a Russian oligarch and interested in investing large amounts of money in Austria.

In his resignation statement Saturday, Strache apologized but said he was set up in a “political assassination” that illegally used surveillance equipment. He conceded his behavior in the video was “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake.”

The publications declined to say where they got the video. In it, Strache and party colleague Johann Gudenus are heard telling the unnamed woman she could expect lucrative construction work if she bought Austria’s Kronen Zeitung newspaper and supported the Freedom Party.

The 49-year-old politician said he had been in a state of “increasing alcohol intoxication” and had “behaved like a teenager” in an attempt to “impress the attractive host.” He said he had had no further contact with the woman and she did not donate to his party.

Key topics in the EU elections have been debates over immigration, democracy and human rights after Europe faced an influx in 2015 of migrants and asylum-seekers from war-torn areas in the Mideast and Asia.

On one side are nationalist, anti-immigrant movements critical of the EU such as Austria’s Freedom Party, the Alternative for Germany party, France’s far-right National Rally and Italy’s League party. They want to halt most immigration into Europe, especially from Muslim areas, and give more control back to national governments from EU headquarters in Brussels.

On the other side, pro-European movements such as continent’s mainstream center-right and center-left parties see the EU parliament vote as a chance to reject populism and support European cooperation and integration.

In the video, Strache also appeared to suggest ways of funneling money to his party via an unconnected foundation to circumvent Austrian rules on political donations.

A spokesman for the opposition Social Democratic Party, Hannes Jarolim, has asked prosecutors to look into the video, the APA news agency reported. Jarolim reportedly claimed the statements in the video could constitute offenses or attempted offenses such as misuse of office, bribery and money laundering.

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