Austrian leader said to cancel Israel visit amid corruption allegations

Sebastian Kurz had been slated to arrive next week but is under investigation over claims government money was used to obtain positive coverage in a tabloid

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks to the media as he arrives to meet Austria's President at Hofburg Palace in Vienna, on October 7, 2021. (Alex Halada/AFP)
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks to the media as he arrives to meet Austria's President at Hofburg Palace in Vienna, on October 7, 2021. (Alex Halada/AFP)

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has canceled his upcoming visit to Israel, slated for next week, as he faces investigation on charges of corruption, Israel’s Kan public broadcaster reported on Thursday.

There has been no official confirmation as of yet that Kurz has canceled his visit, which was set to start on Tuesday.

Kurz enjoyed warm relations with Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and credited him for helping him realize, relatively early in the pandemic, the need to ratchet up measures to try to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Kurz’s government has also been broadly supportive of Israel on the international stage.

Austrian prosecutors announced on Wednesday that Kurz is under investigation over claims that government money was used in a corrupt deal to ensure positive coverage in a tabloid newspaper.

Prosecutors say that Kurz and nine other individuals, as well as three organizations, are under investigation in the affair.

A statement from prosecutors said that raids had been carried out in several locations, including two government ministries, as part of the probe, the latest legal headache for Kurz and his right-wing People’s Party (OeVP).

Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel confirmed that a raid had taken place at his ministry, and Austrian media reported that the chancellery was also one of the locations targeted.

The essence of the allegations is that between 2016 and 2018, “resources from the finance ministry were used to finance partially manipulated opinion polls that served an exclusively party political interest.”

Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (C) arrives to meet Austria’s President at Hofburg Palace in Vienna, on October 7, 2021 (Georg Hochmuth/APA/AFP)

This correlates to the time period in which Kurz took over the leadership of the OeVP and led it into government at the helm of a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

Prosecutors allege that an unnamed media company “received payments” in return for publishing these surveys.

The company in question has not been officially named, but has been widely identified in Austria media as the Oesterreich tabloid.

The group that runs Oesterreich put out a statement denying that any wrongdoing had been committed in the commissioning or publication of its surveys.

Kurz, who had been attending a summit of European Union leaders in Slovenia, denied wrongdoing and made clear that he did not plan to step down. However, the Green Party, a partner in Kurz’s coalition government, said on Thursday that the probe created a “disastrous” impression and raised questions about the chancellor’s “ability to act.”

Other OeVP politicians have reacted angrily to the raids, with party deputy general secretary Gabriela Schwarz saying that they were “for show” and that “accusations were constructed over events that date back as far as five years.”

OeVP MP Andreas Hanger went as far as to blame the probe on “left-wing cells” in the prosecutors’ office.

The latest allegations may put fresh strain on the OeVP’s coalition with the Green Party, which has already come under pressure from the fallout from an earlier scandal.

The 2019 “Ibiza-gate” affair led to the spectacular collapse of Kurz’s previous government, a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party.

Demonstrators hold up placards as they take part in a protest against Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in front of the headquarters of the Austrian People’s Party OeVP in Vienna, on October 7, 2021, a day after Kurz was implicated in a media corruption scandal. (Alex Halada/AFP)

After ex-FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on camera appearing to offer public contracts in exchange for campaign help for the FPOe, investigators launched sprawling corruption inquiries.

Some of these have targeted high-ranking OeVP figures, including Bluemel.

Kurz was also put under investigation on suspicion of making false statements to a parliamentary committee on corruption, though he has not been charged.

The main opposition Social Democrats said that Wednesday’s raids showed the OeVP’s “house of cards was noisily collapsing” and criticized Kurz’s party for “discrediting the independent judiciary and attempting to stymie its investigations.”

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