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Austria’s Kurz quits amid accusations of abusing funds for positive coverage

Like erstwhile ally Netanyahu before him, the 35-year-old chancellor faces allegations he broke the law to influence media’s treatment of him

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz arrives to give a press statement on the government crisis at the Federal Chancellery in Vienna, Austria, on October 9, 2021. (Georg Hochmuth/APA/AFP)
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz arrives to give a press statement on the government crisis at the Federal Chancellery in Vienna, Austria, on October 9, 2021. (Georg Hochmuth/APA/AFP)

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Saturday he was stepping down in an effort to defuse a government crisis, triggered by prosecutors’ announcement that he is a target of a corruption investigation.

Kurz, 35, said he has proposed that Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg replace him. But Kurz himself will remain in frontline politics, saying that he will become the head of his conservative Austrian People’s Party’s parliamentary group.

Kurz’s party had closed ranks behind him after the prosecutors’ announcement on Wednesday. But its junior coalition partner, the Greens, said on Friday that Kurz couldn’t remain as chancellor and demanded that his party nominate an “irreproachable person” to replace him.

Before resigning, Kurz had in recent days canceled a visit to Israel, which had been slated for next week.

Opposition leaders had called for Kurz to go and planned to bring a no-confidence motion against him Tuesday in parliament.

“What we need now are stable conditions,” Kurz told reporters in Vienna. “So, in order to resolve the stalemate, I want to make way to prevent chaos and ensure stability.”

Kurz and his close associates are accused of trying to secure his rise to the leadership of his party and the country with the help of manipulated polls and friendly reports in the media, financed with public money.

Kurz, who became the People’s Party leader and then chancellor in 2017, has denied wrongdoing, and until Saturday made clear that he planned to stay on.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz leaves after giving a press statement on the government crisis at the Federal Chancellery in Vienna, Austria, on October 9, 2021. (Georg Hochmuth/APA/AFP)

In Saturday’s statement, he insisted again that the accusations against him “are false and I will be able to clear this up — I am deeply convinced of that.”

Kurz said he will keep his party’s leadership as well as becoming its parliamentary group leader.

Kurz’s first coalition with the far-right Freedom Party collapsed in 2019. The chancellor pulled the plug after a video surfaced showing the Freedom Party’s leader at the time, Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, appearing to offer favors to a purported Russian investor.

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

Kurz’s government had also been broadly supportive of Israel on the international stage. In May, amid the fighting between Israel and the Hamas terror group in Gaza, the Israeli flag flew on Austria’s Federal Chancellery building, and Kurz assigned clear blame to Hamas for the violence.

The Austrian Federal Chancellery raised the Israeli flag as a sign of solidarity, in Vienna, on May 14, 2021. (Helmut Fohringer/APA/AFP)

The allegations against Kurz echo Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial, in which he is accused of using his position and taking illicit action to benefit certain media shareholders in exchange for positive coverage. Netanyahu, chose not to step down when indicted in 2020 in three cases of fraud and breach of trust, and bribery in one of them, and was not required by law to do so.

The ongoing investigations and the indictments were central to four rapid-fire, indecisive elections between 2019 and 2021, however, which saw a coalition of eight parties with often diametrically opposed ideologies came together to unseat him in June. Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing, and claims the charges against him were fabricated by a biased state prosecution hierarchy and police force, in league with Israeli media and his political rivals.

Former Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and then-PM Netanyahu meet in Jerusalem, on July 10, 2019. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

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.

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