Sunday 16 June 2019

Austrian government collapses over Ibiza video scandal

Interior minister Herbert Kickl’s far-right Freedom Party has withdrawn its ministers from the coalition government.

Sebastian Kurz (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)
Sebastian Kurz (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)

By Frank Jordans and Philipp Jenne, Associated Press

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has called time on his coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party after its leader was shown on video appearing to offer favours to a purported Russian investor.

Mr Kurz said he was seeking the removal of the country’s interior minister, Freedom Party politician Herbert Kickl, to ensure an unbiased probe into the video.

“I’m firmly convinced that what’s necessary now is total transparency and a completely and unbiased investigation,” Mr Kurz told reporters in Vienna.

The Freedom Party reacted by withdrawing its ministers from the government.

“We won’t leave anyone out in the rain,” said interim leader Norbert Hofer.

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Herbert Kickl (Michael Gruber/AP)

Mr Kickl’s removal, which must be approved by Austria’s president, follows the resignation on Saturday of Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who was also Austria’s vice chancellor.

That came a day after two German newspapers published a video showing Mr Strache with a woman claiming to be a Russian tycoon’s niece at a boozy gathering in Ibiza two years ago, shortly before national elections.

Mr Strache and party colleague Johann Gudenus are heard telling the woman she can expect lucrative construction contracts if she buys an Austrian newspaper and supports the Freedom Party. They also discuss ways of secretly funnelling money to the party.

Mr Gudenus, who was instrumental in arranging the meeting, has quit as leader of the party’s parliamentary group and is leaving the party.

Hamburg-based weekly Der Spiegel and Munich daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung said the meeting in Ibiza was probably a trap that Mr Strache and Mr Gudenus had fallen for. The papers refused to reveal the source of the video.

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Heinz-Christian Strache (Michael Gruber/AP)

Mr Kurz noted that at the time the video was shot, Mr Kickl was general-secretary of the Freedom Party and therefore responsible for its financial conduct.

The chancellor added that in his conversations with Mr Kickl and other Freedom Party officials following the video’s release, he “didn’t really have the feeling (they had) an awareness of the dimension of the whole issue”.

The removal of the Freedom Party from the government was a setback for populist and nationalist forces as Europe heads into the final days of campaigning for European Parliament elections, which run from Thursday to Sunday.

Mr Kurz has endorsed a hard line on migration and public finances, and chose to ally with the Freedom Party after winning the 2017 election.

The chancellor, who is personally popular, had said on Saturday that “enough is enough” — a reference to a string of smaller scandals involving the Freedom Party that had plagued his government.

In recent months, those have included a poem in a party newsletter comparing migrants to rats and questions over links to extreme-right groups.

Mr Kickl, a longtime campaign mastermind of the Freedom Party, had already drawn criticism over matters including a raid last year on Austria’s BVT spy agency, which opposition parties claimed was an attempt by the new government to purge domestic political enemies.

His party said he had done nothing wrong and sought to portray itself as the victim of a plot.

The Russian government said it could not comment on the video “because it has nothing to do with the Russian Federation, its president or the government”.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said of the woman in the video: “We don’t know who that woman is and whether she’s Russian or not.”

Pledging to ensure stability in Austria over the coming months, Mr Kurz said vacancies in the government left by the Freedom Party’s departure would be filled with civil servants and technocrats.

His government may find it difficult to continue as planned until Austria holds early elections, which are likely to be in September. Opposition parties plan to call for a vote of no confidence in the government in the coming days.

Press Association

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