VIENNA – Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called for snap elections after his junior coalition partner stumbled over a video showing its leader promising government contracts in return for campaign funding.
“Enough is enough,” Kurz said on Saturday evening in Vienna, adding he wants voters to go to the polls as “soon as possible.”
Heinz-Christian Strache stepped down as vice chancellor and head of the nationalist Freedom Party earlier in the day, calling his actions depicted on the video “dumb” and “embarrassing.”
Strache said he resigned to rescue the coalition with Kurz’s conservative People’s Party, but ultimately this proved to be insufficient. Elections can be held in August at the earliest. Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, who is in charge of appointing and dismissing governments, was to speak later.
The result of the ballot could leave Kurz, the European Union’s youngest leader, in an awkward situation: He is likely to win the election, but not by a margin large enough to govern alone. A new coalition with the Freedom Party may not be possible after the video scandal, be it for lack of votes or backing in Kurz’s People’s Party.
At the same time, the chancellor has burned bridges to the opposition Social Democrats, with whom his party governed in most previous coalitions since World War II. Kurz built his rise to power on breaking with that tradition, so returning to the fold might hurt his credibility.
The People’s Party first attempt to govern with the Freedom Party failed in 2002 after just 2 years and snap elections ended with victory for the conservatives and defeat for the nationalists. There may be hopes in the party to repeat that stint.
The footage from a 2017 meeting in Ibiza with a woman claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch was obtained by German publications Der Spiegel and Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Spiegel didn’t disclose how it obtained the video and said it doesn’t know the motives of the people who made it.
Strache, speaking after handing in his resignation to Kurz in Vienna on Saturday, confirmed the Ibiza meeting while saying he did nothing illegal. He said he pointed out to the woman in the video that Austrian laws had to be obeyed, and that he never received donations from her or gave her any business.
The video was shot illegally and “this was a targeted attempt of political assassination, this was hired work,” Strache told reporters. He already appeared to be in campaign mode in his resignation press conference, praising the government’s achievements. “I want to provide no pretense whatsoever by my misbehavior to bring down this government.”
Austria’s Audit Court said Saturday it would question the Freedom Party’s finances related to the video. Christian Pilnacek of the Justice Ministry told Kurier newspaper that prosecutors will be examining the video. The Freedom Party denies any wrongdoing.