Austrian chancellor set for no-confidence showdown

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks after European Parliament elections at the Austrian People's Party (OeVP) headquarters in Vienna May 26, 2019. — Reuters pic
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks after European Parliament elections at the Austrian People's Party (OeVP) headquarters in Vienna May 26, 2019. — Reuters pic

VIENNA, May 27 — Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is to face a no-confidence vote from MPs today which could see him removed from office over the corruption scandal which brought down his coalition government.

Yesterday Kurz celebrated a big win for his conservative People's Party (OeVP) in the European elections, in which it is projected to have won 34.5 per cent of the vote and two extra European parliament seats, according to preliminary results.

But he barely will have had time to savour the victory before facing the special sitting of parliament, which begins at 10am (0800 GMT).

The actual vote on the no-confidence motion is expected at any time from early afternoon onwards.

If the no-confidence motion succeeds Kurz will be the first chancellor in post-war Austrian history to be removed in this fashion.

It comes in the wake of the so-called “Ibiza-gate” scandal, which saw far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) leader and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resign from both posts after he was caught appearing to offer public contracts in return for campaign help from a fake Russian backer.

That led to Kurz ending his coalition with the FPOe and calling early elections for the autumn, but the opposition say Kurz must also take responsibility for the scandal.

Far-right setback

The main opposition Social Democrats (SPOe) have already said they will support the motion but the FPOe will also have to vote for it in order for it to succeed.

The FPOe leadership has sharpened its rhetoric against Kurz in recent days but are only expected to make a decision on the vote shortly before the parliamentary sitting starts.

The no-confidence vote is being supported by the environmentalist Jetzt party but the liberal NEOS party is voting against, saying it wants to avoid further instability.

The FPOe appear to have suffered a setback in yesterday's vote for their role in the "Ibiza-gate" scandal, falling from 19.7 per cent to 17.5, losing one of their four MEPs.

The scandal was unleashed by the publication on May 17 of hidden-camera recordings filmed in a luxury villa on the holiday island of Ibiza.

Amid a welter of embarrassing comments, Strache also appeared to allude to a scheme channelling political donations through FPOe-linked foundations in order to avoid legal scrutiny.

After Strache’s resignation, Kurz also sacked FPOe interior minister Herbert Kickl, arguing he could not oversee any possible investigation into his own party's wrongdoing.

FPOe ministers responded by walking out of the government en masse, leading to Kurz appointing experts to take their place in an interim government.

Paragon of stability

When he first became chancellor in late 2017, the 32-year-old Kurz was widely hailed on the European right as someone who could successfully tap into surging anti-immigration sentiment while projecting a polished demeanour.

Since the crisis broke he has projected himself as a paragon of stability in a turbulent political climate, and analysts say this will be a key message for him to use whatever the result of today's vote.

But even before the current crisis Kurz found himself constantly having to bat away criticism for the string of controversies around extremist sympathies among FPOe members.

The opposition has placed the blame for the current crisis squarely at the feet of Kurz himself for having invited the far-right into government in the first place, saying he had ample warning of the unsuitability of the FPOe for government.

Kurz has trod a fine line in his statements since the crisis broke, admitting he found the FPOe's antics “hard to swallow” but insisting he had no other choice.

“There was no other party which was ready to form a coalition with us,” he told journalists on Thursday, when asked whether he regretted the coalition. — AFP

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