Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has recommended that the nation's far-right interior minister be dismissed amid a corruption scandal that could dent the hopes of populist parties across the continent just days before European parliamentary elections.
Kurz called on President Alexander Van der Bellen to fire Herbert Kickl, slating him to become the latest far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) politician ousted after party leader and the country’s Vice Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, quit on Saturday.
Strache’s resignation followed the publication of an undercover video that appears to show him offering government contracts to a woman claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.
The FPÖ is in a ruling coalition with Kurz’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). The ÖVP has been quick to distance itself from its governing partners. On Monday, Kurztook aim at Kickl, a prominent member of the FPÖ, who was the party’s secretary-general at the time of the sting in 2017.
“The decision to dismiss a minister is a necessary step, and one you have to think about very carefully,” Kurz said at a press conference, citing several factors that contributed to his decision, including that as secretary-general Kickl was responsible for the finances of his party.
Given Kickl hasn’t voluntarily stepped aside, Kurz said he had recommended the President remove him. Kurz said he expected the President would follow through with the recommendation.
“I am strongly convinced that we need full transparency and seamless resolution. This is what the Austrian people deserve,” Kurz added.
Kickl, meanwhile, denied any personal wrongdoing. At a press conference, he said Kurz’s government was “drunk on power” and that attempts to kick him out of the government were “an attempt to consolidate their own power in the government.”
An FPÖ spokesperson said that all the party’s ministers would step down if Kickl is fired, according to the Austria Press Agency.
Dent in populist support?
The scandal comes at a delicate time for Europe’s populist parties, which have been tipped to make big gains at the upcoming parliamentary elections between May 23 and May 26.
Austria’s FPÖ is in an alliance with Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini’s League, and Salvini has spoken openly of forming a nationalist bloc in the European Parliament that would take a harder line on immigration.
A far-right rally led by Salvini in Milan on Saturday, however, failed to attract the big crowds predicted.
The secret footage of Strache filmed in Ibiza two years ago was published Friday by Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine and Süddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper. It is not known who recorded the video or set up the meeting.
The following morning, Strache denied doing “anything against the law” but apologized to “everyone I have disappointed with my behavior.”
Russia has denied any involvement in the affair, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying that “I cannot in any way evaluate the appearance of this video, because it has nothing to do with the Russian Federation, the president or the government.”
“We do not know for sure who this woman is, whether she is Russian, therefore this is a story that does not and cannot have anything to do with us,” he added.
The scandal is the biggest crisis Austria’s governing coalition has faced since forming in 2017, and over the weekend more than 5,000 protesters gathered outside the chancellor’s office in Vienna calling for fresh elections.
Kurz responded by calling for a snap election in September, though it’s unclear how the coalition will work together in the meantime.