May 21, 2019 / 7:10 AM / 2 months ago

Austrian far right crashes out of government as president backs Kurz

VIENNA (Reuters) - The far-right Freedom Party (FPO) quit Austria’s coalition government on Tuesday after the president sided with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and sacked the hardline FPO interior minister, paving the way for a caretaker government.

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz delivers a news conference at the presidential office at Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria, May 21, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Kurz’s own fate remained uncertain, however, as the FPO has threatened to respond by backing a no-confidence motion in parliament. Losing that would hurt the 32-year-old as he seeks to emerge statesmanlike from the scandal-tainted collapse of his government. A snap election is expected to be held in September.

Kurz set about filling the vacant FPO ministers’ posts with technocrats, but it remained to be seen if that would be enough to satisfy opposition lawmakers. The leader of the Social Democrats, the second biggest party in parliament, said if technocrats were brought in, it should be for all cabinet posts.

“All those I have spoken to emphasize that they want to ensure Austria’s stability in the coming transitional period, and the unanimity on this point is a start,” President Alexander Van der Bellen, who has been holding talks with all parties in parliament, told a joint news conference with Kurz.

Kurz, whose center-right People’s Party (OVP) is the largest in parliament, said he would propose civil servants to fill the posts by Tuesday evening at the latest. Van der Bellen is due to address the nation at 7:45 p.m. (1745 GMT).

The president approved Kurz’s request to dismiss Interior Minister Herbert Kickl as what started as a scandal that felled the government turned into a power struggle between the 32-year-old chancellor and his coalition partners of the past 17 months.

Video footage of FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache apparently offering to fix state contracts and explaining how to circumvent party financing rules was published over the weekend, forcing him to resign and prompting Kurz to end their alliance.

Kurz has pledged a full investigation into any crimes or wrongdoing arising from the footage, which was filmed in 2017.

He argued that Kickl could not stay on as interior minister because he was FPO chairman at the time, which includes responsibility for party finances, and should not therefore oversee the investigation by security services.

WILL THEY, WON’T THEY?

Kickl said Kurz was only interested in regaining control of a ministry at the heart of Austria’s security apparatus, and suggested his party would back a no-confidence motion.

“It would be almost naive for Kurz to assume that we, the FPO, have no distrust of him following his distrust in us,” Kickl told tabloid Oesterreich before Van der Bellen spoke.

New FPO leader Norbert Hofer later said, however, that the party had not yet decided.

Lawmaker Peter Pilz said he would put forward a motion of no confidence in Kurz at a special session of parliament on Monday, the day after Austrians vote in a European Parliament election.

“I am quite certain that it will succeed and that I will manage to ensure that Kurz will no longer be chancellor on Tuesday,” Pilz, an environmentalist who founded his own small rival party to the Greens, told Reuters.

Slideshow (2 Images)

The Social Democrats’ leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, said her party did not rule out bringing its own no-confidence motion.

“I am concerned about Sebastian Kurz’s approach at the moment. He did not seriously try to secure a parliamentary majority for his proposal,” she said in a statement after Kurz and Van der Bellen spoke.

“I remain of the view that a government composed solely of experts is the most reliable solution in this difficult situation.”

Additional reporting by Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich in Vienna, Michael Shields in Zurich and Michelle Martin in Berlin; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Gareth Jones

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