Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz resigns in the face of criminal investigation
BERLIN – Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Saturday announced he would resign, days after prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into allegations he used public funds to pay pollsters and journalists for favorable coverage.
The move came amid intense pressure from all sides, with Kurz’s government partners, the Greens, threatening to leave the coalition unless his Conservative People’s Party replaces him as chancellor. The country’s president issued a stern statement urging all actors to put party politics aside for the sake of stability.
“I admit it is not an easy step for me,” Kurz told reporters at a press conference in Vienna on Saturday evening. “My country is more important than my person. What he needs is stability.
Mr Kurz, 35, said he would suggest Alexander Schallenberg, 52, the country’s foreign minister, as his replacement in the chancellery. He said he would remain as head of his party and head of the Conservative caucus in Parliament – positions that would keep him close to the new chancellor.
Saturday’s resignation was the second time Mr Kurz was forced to relinquish the Chancellery without serving a full term. It was also the second time his exit was linked to corruption allegations.
Prosecutors said on Wednesday Mr Kurz was suspected of using taxpayer money between 2016 and 2018 to pay a survey company to produce favorable surveys and a media company to publish the results.
Despite his departure from the chancellery, Mr. Kurz will remain close to the levers of power.
“A real loss of power looks quite different,” political scientist Peter Filzmaier told Austrian public broadcaster ORF, noting that Schallenberg is a confidant of Mr. Kurz.
Celebrated elsewhere in Europe, particularly Germany, as the fresh and vibrant face of a new wave of conservatism, Mr Kurz is also seen by many as a divisive figure. His boycott of the UN migration pact in 2019 and his cuts in benefits for asylum seekers in Austria drew parallels with his Hungarian counterpart, Viktor Orban.
But Mr. Kurz, a talented politician adept at the finesse of his image, has always taken care to present himself as a pro-European leader looking to the future. His decision to form a government with the Greens was seen by many as an attempt to rehabilitate his reputation abroad, where his tilt to the right had raised eyebrows.
Werner Kogler, Austrian vice-chancellor and head of the Greens, who had questioned Mr Kurz’s ability to remain chancellor while he was under criminal investigation, welcomed the resignation.
“Considering the current situation, I think this is the right step for the continuation of our work in government and for Austria’s image abroad,” he said, indicating that his party would remain in Mr. Schallenberg’s coalition.
A seasoned diplomat, Mr. Schallenberg was due to meet Mr. Kogler on Sunday.
Like his predecessor, both foreign minister and soon to be chancellor, Schallenberg has taken a hard line on migration and is a staunch supporter of Israel. He was first appointed as foreign minister in a technocratic caretaker government that had to intervene for several months after Mr Kurz lost a vote of confidence in parliament in May 2019.
It came after Mr Kurz’s partners in his first government, the far-right Freedom Party, resigned in a scandal that erupted after a video showed the leader of the Freedom Party pledging government contracts in exchange for financial support from a woman claiming to be a wealthy Russian. This government lasted only 526 days.
After a snap election in September 2019, Mr Kurz won a decisive victory for his party, but this time he swiveled to the left, forming a government with the Greens.
When federal prosecutors announced on Wednesday that they had opened a criminal investigation against Mr Kurz and nine others, including his close advisers and members of his party, the Greens began to question whether he was fit to remain in office.
In his statement on Saturday, Mr Kurz insisted the allegations against him were false and said he would prove his innocence.
“These accusations date back to 2016. They are false and I can clarify that,” he said. “I am deeply convinced of it.
Between 2016 and 2018, prosecutors said in their statement Wednesday that Mr Kurz is suspected of using finance ministry funds to pay a polling company to conduct, and in some cases manipulate, investigations favorable to him and to his party.
The results of the investigations were then published in newspapers owned by a media conglomerate that accepted payments in return for positive coverage, prosecutors said.
The suspicions are based in part on lengthy SMS conversations between Mr Kurz and some of his advisers. Prosecutors on Wednesday ordered police to search the chancellery, the finance ministry and the headquarters of the Conservative party.
Mr Kurz is also the subject of a separate investigation, in which prosecutors examine whether he made any false statements to Parliament. After the announcement of this investigation in May, the Greens lined up behind the Chancellor.
But last week, leaders of the left-wing party, which had campaigned for a commitment to clean government, felt they had reached a limit.
Doubting that Mr Kurz was fit for the Chancellery, the Greens began exploratory talks with opposition parties in parliament over possible coalitions – only to realize that any collaboration would need to somehow or other other involve the far right.
In a speech to the nation on Friday night, President Alexander Van der Bellen called on “all parties and their leaders” to put aside their short-term ambitions and put the needs of the nation above politics.
“Austria cannot afford selfishness right now,” he said.