Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz resigns in the face of criminal investigation

BERLIN – Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Saturday announced he would resign, days after prosecutors opened a criminal investigatio...

BERLIN – Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Saturday announced he would resign, days after prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into allegations he used federal money to pay pollsters and journalists for favorable coverage.

The moving came in the middle of intense pressure on all sides, with Mr Kurz’s government partners, the Greens, threatening to leave the coalition unless his conservative People’s Party replaces him as chancellor. The country’s president issued a stern statement urging all actors to put party politics aside for the sake of stability.

“I admit it is not an easy step for me,” Kurz told reporters at a press conference in Vienna on Saturday evening. “My country is more important than my person. What he needs is stability.

Mr Kurz, 35, said he would suggest Alexander Schallenberg, 52, the country’s foreign minister, as his replacement in the chancellery. He said he would remain as head of his party and head of the Conservative caucus in Parliament – positions that would keep him close to the new chancellor.

Saturday’s resignation was the second time Mr Kurz was forced to relinquish the Chancellery without serving a full term. It was also the second time his exit was linked to corruption allegations. But observers noted that despite being awarded his title, he remained close to the levers of power.

“A real loss of power looks quite different,” said Peter Filzmaier, a political scientist at Austrian public broadcaster ORF, noting that Mr. Schallenberg is a confidant of Mr. Kurz.

Werner Kogler, Austrian vice-chancellor and head of the Greens, who had questioned Mr Kurz’s ability to remain chancellor while he was under criminal investigation, welcomed the resignation.

“Considering the current situation, I think this is the right step for the continuation of our work in government and for Austria’s image abroad,” he said, indicating that his party would remain in the coalition.

The first government Mr Kurz forged, along with the far-right Freedom Party, collapsed in 2019 over a compromising video that showed the leader of the Freedom Party promising government contracts in exchange for the financial support from a woman claiming to be a wealthy Russian. This partnership only lasted 526 days.

After an early election in 2019 Mr Kurz won a decisive victory for his party, but this time he swung to the left, forming a government with the Greens.

When federal prosecutors announced on Wednesday that they had opened a criminal investigation against Mr Kurz and nine others, including his close advisers and members of his party, the Greens began to question whether he was fit to remain in office.

In his statement on Saturday, Mr Kurz insisted the allegations against him were false and said he would prove his innocence.

“These accusations date back to 2016. They are false and I will be able to clarify that,” he said. “I am deeply convinced of it.

Between 2016 and 2018, prosecutors claimed in their statement Wednesday that Mr Kurz was involved in using taxpayer money from the country’s finance ministry to pay a survey company to conduct, and in some cases manipulate, investigations favorable to him and his party.

The results of the investigations were then published in newspapers owned by a media conglomerate that accepted payments in return for positive coverage, prosecutors said in their statement. The suspicions are based in part on lengthy SMS conversations between Mr Kurz and some of his advisers.

After an intense, social media campaign Focusing mainly on patriotic themes and taking a hard line against migration, Mr Kurz led his party to victory in 2019 – increasing its support by 6 percentage points.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz resigns in the face of criminal investigation
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz resigns in the face of criminal investigation
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