By Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) – Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz proposed on Monday sacking his interior minister, escalating a battle triggered when a video sting took down the longtime leader of his far-right coalition partners.
Kurz, a conservative, ended his coalition with the nationalist Freedom Party (FPO) on Saturday after leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was caught in the apparent sting operation offering to fix state contracts for a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece.
The fight took a new turn when Kurz told reporters he would propose to Austria’s President Alexander Van der Bellen removing Interior Minister Herbert Kickl from office after Kickl refused to go voluntarily, as Strache did.
The FPO had announced that it would vacate all its ministerial posts if Kickl, a mastermind of the FPO’s ascent to power, were forced out.
“I agreed with the president that we want to guarantee stability until the new elections. That’s why we’ll fill the vacant jobs in the ministries with experts or senior government officials,” Kurz said.
He said this would keep the government operating effectively until snap elections due in September. Opposition parties readied a vote of no confidence in the government, and it was not clear that the FPO would side with Kurz in the vote.
Austrian news agency APA reported that the FPO’s ministers quit in unison on Monday. But in an interview with national broadcaster ORF later in the evening, Norbert Hofer, the new head of the Freedom Party, only repeated that its ministers would step down if Kickl were forced out. FPO spokesmen were not immediately available for comment.
German media published the video on Friday, a week before a European Parliament election and a year-and-a-half after Austria once again became the only Western European country with far-right cabinet ministers. It has since been joined by Italy.
The video showed Strache meeting the woman in 2017, shortly before the election that brought him into government. So far, nothing has come to light suggesting how or why the two news outlets came to publish it now.
In the footage, Strache discussed rules on party financing and how to work around them. Describing the footage as “targeted political assassination”, he said he has done nothing illegal and never met the woman again.
Niki Fellner, editor in chief of the Oesterreich tabloid newspaper, said by openly discussing what he called corruption and dirty tricks, Strache had tarnished Austria’s image: “From Germany to Hungary, we are seen as of now as a banana republic.”
Kurz has argued Kickl could not oversee an investigation into the sting that snared his party leader.
Kickl accused Kurz of attempting a power grab for his OVP party.
“This ministry was for many … years the linchpin of the engine of a ruthless OVP power system in this republic,” Kickl said, adding that for Kurz: “It therefore had to come back under the OVP’s control, no matter the cost.”
Kickl’s position is especially sensitive given the FPO’s ties to Russia. It has a cooperation agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
(Additional reporting by Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich in Vienna and Michael Shields in Zurich; Editing by Alison Williams and Phil Berlowitz)