Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz ousted in no-confidence vote
Austria’s chancellor has been ousted in a no-confidence vote just a day after his centre-right party enjoyed a triumphant night in the European elections, after opposition politicians lost faith in his handling of a corruption scandal that has engulfed his former far-right coalition partner.
Austria will be governed by a technocratic administration of experts and senior civil servants until fresh elections scheduled for early September.
During a debate in which the delegates of the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ) resolutely refused to lend Sebastian Kurz the customary applause, rightwing populist politicians accused the centre-right chancellor of trying to use the so-called Ibiza scandal to consolidate his power at the top of government.
Opposition delegates said that Kurz, the leader of the Austrian People’s party (ÖVP), had not shown enough willingness to enter into a dialogue with parliament during his time as chancellor. “You only showed contempt for parliament and Austrian democracy”, said the SPÖ’s Jörg Leichtfried.
The vote makes Austria’s youthful chancellor the final figure to be swept away by a political avalanche unleashed by the Ibiza scandal.
The German publications Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung published a video on their websites last week that shows Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPÖ leader, and his parliamentary leader, Johann Gudenus, talking to an unidentified woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch about how she could invest in Austria.
During the six-hour meeting at a luxury resort on Ibiza, the woman expresses an interest in gaining control of the country’s largest-circulation tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung, to which Strache replies that after staff changes at the paper, it could help the FPÖ in its election campaign. A chain-smoking Strache is then filmed saying the woman would be able to gain access to artificially-inflated state contracts.
Strache resigned a day after the video’s publication, describing his behaviour as “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake”. The interior minister, Herbert Kickl, was sacked the following Monday, with Kurz accusing the FPÖ hardliner of failing to show the “required sensibility in dealing with the accusations”.
Who exactly organised the sting on the far-right remains the subject of fevered speculation in both Austria and Germany. Media reports have identified the Viennese lawyer Ramin Mirfakhrai as the middleman who put the FPÖ politicians in touch with the purported heiress.
Mirfakhrai confirmed his involvement in a written statement, but did not reveal any further participants, merely describing the sting as a “civil society-driven project in which investigative-journalistic approaches were taken”.
Spiegel and Süddeutsche have refused to comment on the video’s origins in order to protect their sources. Strache has called the video “a honey trap stage-managed by intelligence agencies”, but also alluded to a controversial Israeli spin doctor with links to Austria’s centre-left Social Democratic party (SPÖ) and a German satirist, Jan Böhmermann.
What is clear is that Strache may have realised he was being set up if his judgement had not been clouded by copious shots of vodka and Red Bull. The video shows Strache become suspicious when he notices the purported heiress’s grubby toenails. “A Russian woman in this league doesn’t have dirty feet,” Strache whispers to Gudenus. His protege dismisses the concerns, more alcohol is poured and the conversation continues.
The Austrian tabloid Krone identified the woman at the centre of the video on Monday as a Bosnian student of agricultural science, and claimed that she had received a payment of between €6,000 and €7,000 for her performance.
Gudenus, who has been expelled from the FPÖ in the wake of the scandal, has since said he believes his drinks were spiked because he is unable to remember much of the evening.
For all the drama and cloak-and-dagger intrigue of the last week, Sunday evening’s European elections made it look as if the tremors of the Ibiza scandal had done less damage to Austria’s political landscape than many had expected.
Kurz’s conservatives emerged as the strongest party on the night on 34.5% of the vote, up 7.5 percentage points on the previous elections. The FPÖ only took a minor hit, losing 2.2 percentage points to come third with 17.5%.
Strache received enough preferential votes across the country that he could be headed to the European parliament if he were to accept the mandate.
The SPÖ came second on 23.5% but performed slightly less well than in 2014.
The no-confidence vote means that Kurz, 32, will go down in Austria’s history books not only as its youngest ever chancellor, but also it shortest-serving.
Kurz spent 525 days in office after a resounding win in the 2017 national elections. His predecessor, the Social Democrat Christian Kern, lasted 580 days.