Saturday, 18 May 2019 12:41

Austrian vice-chancellor resigns over secret video footage

Austria’s vice-chancellor has resigned after a video appeared to show the far-right politician promising public contracts to a fake Russian backer in return for campaign help.

In a press conference in Vienna on Saturday, the Freedom party (FPO) leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, said he had been the victim of a “political hit-job” aimed at breaking apart Austria’s governing coalition, and insisted the full video would show he had done nothing wrong.

However, he admitted the video showed him “acting like a teenager” and that his behaviour was “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake”. The 49-year-old said he hoped his party could continue governing in a coalition with the centre-right Austrian People’s party (ÖVP) of the chancellor, Sebastian Kurz.

 

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 its parliamentary group leader, Johann Gudenus, talking to a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch about how she can invest in Austria.

The woman says she is interested in gaining control of the country’s largest-circulation tabloid, the Krone 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 told the Suddeutsche Zeitung that “a lot of alcohol was consumed as the evening progressed” and that there was a “high language barrier” during the conversation.

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”.

The Socialist party said Gudenus should also resign, describing the footage as Austria’s biggest post-war scandal, while the liberal NEOS party said fresh parliamentary elections were now unavoidable.

Austrian media said the coalition was unlikely to survive. “The FPO is finished,” ran the headline in the Krone Zeitung. Die Presse said the coalition was on the brink. “This is huge. This has to be the end of Heinz-Christian Strache,” the political analyst Thomas Hofer said.

The FPO’s lead candidate in next week’s European parliament elections, Harald Vilimsky, cancelled a planned trip on Saturday to Milan 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 pro-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.

The Guardian

 

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