BERLIN — Conservative Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called for new elections on Saturday, hours after his far-right vice chancellor and head of the Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, announced his resignation from both offices. The breakdown of Austria’s coalition between Kurz’s mainstream conservative party and Strache’s far-right Freedom Party marked the end of a political venture that faced fierce criticism from the start.
Hours before Kurz’s announcement, leaked videos emerged on Friday evening that purported to show his vice chancellor promising government contracts in exchange for political donations from a woman posing as a member of a Russian oligarch family.
The videos, secretly recorded in a villa on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza in 2017 before the Austrian elections, included Strache telling the woman he could arrange lucrative government contracts if she acquired controlling stakes in Austria’s largest tabloid, Kronen Zeitung, and supported the anti-immigrant Freedom Party.
But the meeting appears to have been a political sting. The woman was not the niece of a prominent Russian businessman, as she claimed. The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung and the weekly Der Spiegel published clips of the video on Friday but did not say how they were obtained or how the video was made.
In a statement Saturday, Strache denied wrongdoing and emphasized that he had not committed any crimes. He told reporters that his acts were “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake,” and said he had been “acting like a teenager.”
He stressed that he hoped the scandal would not result in the breakup of the coalition government.
But in his remarks Saturday, Kurz cited the Freedom Party’s ties to controversial far-right groups as well as other scandals, including a far-right party official’s recent poem comparing migrants to rats.
“After yesterday’s video, I must say enough is enough,” Kurz said, referring to the expressed “idea of abuse of power” in the recordings, among other things that “damage the reputation of our country.”
Kurz said he was not convinced the Freedom Party would fundamentally change in the future.
The videos that triggered Saturday’s dramatic moves were made before the Freedom Party formed a coalition with the mainstream conservatives, led by Kurz. The leak came only days before European Parliament elections.
As one of Europe’s highest-profile far-right leaders, Strache has shaped Austrian politics for years and was considered to be an influential voice abroad, where he has been known for his anti-immigration stance among European counterparts. His resignation and the subsequent breakdown of the coalition government dealt a blow to European anti-immigration parties’ attempts to position themselves as credible government alternatives, but the scandal may also mobilize the party’s core supporters in Austria.
On the other side of the political spectrum, thousands of anti-government protesters rallied Saturday in Vienna’s city center, demanding new elections.
The far-right party could still prove to be a major obstacle to forming a new, more moderate coalition after new elections expected to be held later this year.
Neither Strache nor Kurz responded to requests from The Washington Post for further comment.
The 32-year-old chancellor has repeatedly backed his far-right allies in the past amid a number of scandals, triggering criticism that his approach has emboldened the Austrian far-right, even though the conservative leader maintained that he called out his coalition partner whenever necessary.
His critics argue that Kurz’s rapid ascent in Austrian politics and his efforts to rise to the top office resulted in serious mistakes, including the decision to hand the Freedom Party control of the Interior Ministry after the 2017 elections. The ministry is responsible for overseeing the domestic intelligence agency responsible for investigations of the far-right and Islamist extremists.
Only months after the party took control of the ministry, Austrian police raided the domestic intelligence agency on Feb. 28, 2018, seizing documents that included details on the far-right party, which has faced extremism accusations for decades. Documents provided by foreign partner agencies were also seized, and some of those agencies later halted or restricted intelligence-sharing with their Austrian counterparts over fears that their information would end up in the hands of the Russians, who have deep ties to the Freedom Party. The Post first reported those repercussions in August.
Austrian media outlets reported on Saturday that the far-right’s oversight of the Interior Ministry led to the breaking point for the coalition, with Kurz reportedly asking the Freedom Party to give up control of the ministry and the far-right party refusing to do so.
The party and Strache, its leader since 2005, also stand accused of creating a culture in which extremists feel safe voicing xenophobic or anti-Semitic remarks, critics say.
Austria’s Mauthausen Committee, an association focused on preserving the memory of Austria’s Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, has counted more than 100 incidents of Freedom Party officials being involved in right-wing extremist activities since 2013.
“What is striking is that such ‘isolated cases’ have not decreased, but rather increased since the Freedom Party became part of government,” said an April 9 open letter addressed to Kurz that was signed by the committee and by Jewish groups and groups against right-wing extremism, as well as by survivors of concentration camps.
“The approach of a governing party to right-wing extremism is a matter of principle,” the letter said.
But ultimately, it wasn’t the party’s long history of extremist incidents that resulted in the coalition’s breakup; instead, it was one boozy night in Ibiza two years ago.