Austrian chancellor, president to discuss election after far-right video scandal

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria’s chancellor and president will discuss a date on Sunday for an early parliamentary election and the makeup of a caretaker government, after a video sting brought down the leader of the far-right junior partners in the ruling coalition.

A still image from a footage shot in Ibiza, Spain in July 2017 that has caused Austrian politician Heinz-Christian Strache to step down as vice chancellor and Freedom Party leader. Der Spiegel and Sueddeutsche Zeitung via REUTERS

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pulled the plug on his coalition and called for a snap election after his deputy, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, quit over a video showing him discussing fixing state contracts in return for favours.

Heinz-Christian Strache, who was filmed speaking to a woman who posed as the niece of a Russian oligarch, accepted that the video was “catastrophic” but denied having broken the law and said no money changed hands.

The scandal is a blow for one of Europe’s most successful nationalist parties just a week before an election to the European parliament in which far-right groups anticipate record success across the continent.

Kurz, a conservative who has ruled with far-right junior partners for a year and a half, said the video was the last straw after a number of lesser scandals, and it was time for a new vote rather than an attempt to keep the coalition in office.

“Enough is enough,” Kurz said in a statement to the media on Saturday. President Alexander Van der Bellen, who has the authority to dismiss the government, also said he favoured a snap election and would discuss details on Sunday.

Austria could set an election date as soon as the summer, according to national law, “but that could be difficult due to school holidays,” said Robert Stein, who heads the election desk at the interior ministry.

“The first possible Sunday after the school holidays would be September 15,” he said.

The makeup of any caretaker government until the snap election was also up for discussion.

Strache said on Saturday that Transport Minister Norbert Hofer, a former presidential candidate, would replace him as party leader. Kurz has not yet said whether he would accept Hofer as his deputy in government.

The Freedom Party’s leadership will meet on Saturday afternoon to discuss next steps and nominate Hofer as party chief, news wire APA said.

Reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Peter Graff

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