By Stefan J. Bos
The early elections announced Sunday come after Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache suddenly resigned as secretly recorded video footage emerged showing him talking to an alleged Russian investor in Ibiza.
In the video, Strache appears to offer government contracts in exchange for political support and potentially illegal donations for his far-right Freedom Party.
After the footage was leaked through media outlets, the vice-chancellor told reporters he had decided to step down. “We want to continue implementing the government program. And we support this government program in our beloved responsibility to Austria and its people,” he said.
“I do not want to be the reason to make that impossible and also provide a pretext for this government to collapse. That was the goal of this illegal activity that took place. That’s why I had a talk with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz where I offered my resignation as vice chancellor of Austria,” Strache explained adding: “He accepted this decision.”
But Austrian Chancellor Kurz went even further. He quickly called for a new election in an attempt to shore up support for his policies. Kurz made clear that he wants to continue “to serve Austria” in a way he sees fit but “without interruptions and scandals.”
The chancellor said that is not possible at the moment and that he saw no possibility to work with other parties as they are either too small or don’t share his political views. “That’s why I proposed to the Austrian president to call for early elections as soon as possible,” he added.
President Alexander van der Bellen later said in a statement that “a new beginning should take place quickly, as the provisions of the Federal Constitution permit” and that he pleaded to hold the elections in early September.
Vice Chancellor Strache’s resignation and the collapse of the government comes as a setback for populist and nationalist forces as Europe heads into the final days of campaigning for elections to the 751-seat European Parliament.
Hungary’s prime minister, for instance, wanted to form an anti-migration block within the European Union with leaders such as Strache.
Although the EU legislature has limited powers, the campaign has become a test of strength between populist movements seeking to limit
immigration and return more powers to national governments from the EU on the one side, and more mainstream center-right and center-left parties at the other.
The scandal also underscored worries about Russian influence in several European countries, especially among European populist movements such as Austria’s governing Freedom Party.
Critics fear those developments could enable Moscow to influence legislation and policy in the EU.