Austrian chancellor pledges to get to the bottom of smear campaign

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria’s Social Democratic (SPO) Chancellor Christian Kern pledged on Sunday to get to the bottom of his party’s connection to a smear campaign against the head of the main opposition People’s Party two weeks before a parliamentary election.

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Austrian newspapers reported on Saturday that Tal Silberstein, a former SPO adviser dismissed this summer, was behind two websites making unsubstantiated allegations against Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, whose People’s Party is leading polls ahead of the Oct. 15 parliamentary election.

“It matters to me that we gain full transparency on what happened. We decided to set up an internal task force to review what happened in a thorough and transparent way,” Kern told journalists at a press briefing in Vienna.

SPO chairman Georg Niedermuehlbichler announced his resignation on Saturday over the matter.

Kern said the SPO had stopped working with Silberstein on Aug. 17, including all money transfers, and that it was not clear why the activities attributed to him continued and even intensified after that date.

“I am referring to anti-semitic propaganda that I reject with all my heart,” Kern said.

Reuters has been unable to reach Silberstein for comment.

Kern said he was also very interested in finding out who was behind leaked emails during the campaign that were aimed at harming him. He hinted that other political parties might be involved.

The leader of the Green Party, Ulrike Lunacek, said in a statement that if Kern had indications that other parties were involved he should make them public.

Herbert Kickl, secretary general of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO), said in a statement Kern had “missed his chance to step down honorably” and was instead trying to present himself as a victim.

Reporting by Silke Koltrowitz and Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Potter