The fate of Austria’s coalition government is in the balance after the far-right vice-chancellor resigned over a video that appeared to show him promising public contracts to a woman posing as a Russian backer, in return for help in his election campaign.
The Freedom party (FPO) leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, told a press conference in Vienna on Saturday that he had been the victim of a “targeted political assassination” aimed at breaking apart the coalition, and insisted the full video would show he had done nothing illegal.
However, he admitted the footage showed him “acting like a teenager” and that his behaviour was “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake”. Fighting back tears as he asked his wife and colleagues to forgive him, he said that in the cold light of day, his remarks were clearly “catastrophic and exceedingly embarrassing”.Advertisement
Amid mounting speculation that snap elections could be imminent, the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, who has repeatedly been forced to distance himself from the FPO after a string of revelations about extremist, antisemitic and racist sympathies in the FPO’s ranks, was expected to make a statement later on Saturday.
Strache, 49, said he would be replaced by the transport minister, Norbert Hofer, his party deputy, who narrowly lost 2016’s presidential election, adding that he hoped his party could continue governing in a coalition with Kurz’s centre-right Austrian People’s party (ÖVP).
“I do not in any circumstances want my wrong behaviour to provide a pretext for the government to collapse,” Strache said. The FPO’s parliamentary group leader, Johann Gudenus, who appeared in the video alongside Strache, also resigned from all his political positions on Saturday.
The German weekly Der Spiegel and the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung published the video on their websites on Friday. The papers said the hidden-camera recordings took place in a luxury Ibiza villa in July 2017, months before the parliamentary elections that brought Kurz’s conservative and Strache’s far-right parties to power.
The recordings show Strache, who took over as leader of the nationalist party in 2005, and Gudenus talking to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch about how she could invest in Austria.
The woman says she is interested 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 FPO in its election campaign.
Strache is also filmed saying the woman would then be able to gain access to public contracts. Both newspapers said they had no clear and corroborated information about who had set up the elaborate sting operation.
The vice-chancellor apologised for flirting with the woman, whom he describes as attractive in the recording. “It was typical alcohol-fuelled macho behaviour in which, yes, I also wanted to impress the attractive female host,” he said.
The FPO co-chair, Christian Hafenecker, said lawyers were considering the party’s response. Neither Strache nor the party received or were granted any benefits from the persons concerned, he said in a statement, adding that since the video was “obviously recorded illegally, we are also preparing appropriate legal steps”.
Opposition parties, including the Social Democrats, which described the incident as Austria’s biggest postwar scandal, the liberal NEOS party and the Greens called for the coalition to be dissolved. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside Kurz’s office, chanting “Snap elections now!” and “Sebastian, your government, your responsibility.”
Austrian media said the coalition was unlikely to survive. “The FPO is finished,” ran the headline in the Kronen Zeitung. Die Presse said the coalition was on the brink.
The FPO’s lead candidate in next week’s European parliament elections, Harald Vilimsky, cancelled a trip to Milan planned for Saturday, where he was due to take part in a campaign event launching an alliance of European far-right parties led by the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini.
In the video, Strache, whose party’s first leader was a former SS officer, also ponders the part-privatisation of Austria’s public broadcaster, saying it should be more like the government-mouthpiece state media has become in neighbouring Hungary.
He also appeared to suggest political donations might be made through a foundation with links to the FPO, rather than the party itself, apparently in order to escape legal scrutiny.
Kurz’s coalition options are limited, because while the ÖVP still tops opinion polls, it is well short of a majority in parliament. The only other party with which it could hope form a majority government is the Social Democrat party, with which the chancellor has difficult relations.