VIENNA (Reuters) - Three Austrian far-right Freedom Party (FPO) city councillors in Vienna left the party on Thursday, a fracture possibly leading to a nationwide split after it crashed out of the coalition government amid the Ibiza corruption scandal.
The three left the FPO over its disavowal of former leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who stepped down as vice chancellor in May after video footage showed him offering to fix government contracts at a dinner party in Ibiza, off the east coast of Spain, with a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece.
The scandal prompted the collapse of the ruling coalition between the FPO and conservatives led by Sebastian Kurz and contributed to a 10-point plunge in support for the FPO in September’s parliamentary election.
Thursday’s founding of a new political group in Vienna’s assembly, the Alliance for Austria (DAO), is also widely seen as paving the way for an attempted political comeback by Strache in his hometown, a Social Democratic stronghold where city council elections are due to be held next autumn.
“The FPO has become an anti-Strache party that we say we are no longer prepared to represent,” one of the three Vienna lawmakers, Karl Baron, told a news conference announcing the DAO’s launch.
Although only a group within the local assembly, the DAO already has a website http://www.daö.at, fuelling suspicion that it will become a fully fledged party led by Strache. Baron said he hoped Strache would join and lead it in Vienna’s next election.
The FPO’s Vienna leadership is considering expelling Strache in the wake of the Ibiza scandal and more recent allegations that he improperly claimed excessive expenses from the party, but a decision has not formally been reached.
Thursday’s move, however, only exacerbated tensions between Strache and the remaining leadership of a party he led for 14 years. Like other far-right parties in Europe, the FPO thrived on public fears about Europe’s migration crisis.
An outright party split would be a fresh blow after the Ibiza scandal.
The Austrian anti-corruption prosecutors’ office is investigating Strache on suspicion of fraud in relation to the Ibiza video.
Strache denies wrongdoing.
Thursday’s announcement prompted comparisons with 2005, when the FPO’s longtime leader, Joerg Haider, left to found his own party, Alliance Future Austria.
“Alliance Future Ibiza has been founded and will also have to shoulder all responsibility for subsequent events,” FPO leader Norbert Hofer said on Twitter.
Reporting by Francois Murphy