Austria’s vice chancellor announces resignation amid leak of video of purported graft – The Washington Post

BERLIN — Austria’s vice chancellor and head of the far-right Freedom Party, Heinz-Christian Strache, announced his resignation from both offices Saturday, hours after leaked videos that purported to show him promising government contracts in exchange for political donations from a woman posing as part of a Russian oligarch family.

The videos, secretly recorded in a villa on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza in 2017 before the Austrian elections, included Strache telling the woman he could arrange lucrative government contracts if she acquired controlling stakes in Austria’s largest tabloid, Kronen Zeitung, and supported the anti-immigrant Freedom Party.

But the meeting appeared to be a political sting. The woman was not the niece a prominent Russian businessman, as she claimed. The daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the weekly Der Spiegel published clips of the video on Friday, but did not say how they were obtained or how it was made.

In a statement Saturday, Strache denied wrongdoing and emphasized that he had not committed any crimes but told reporters his acts were “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake.”

The videos that triggered Saturday’s dramatic moves were made before Strache’s far-right Freedom Party formed a coalition with the mainstream conservatives, led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The leak also came only days before European Parliament elections.

Strache is set to be replaced by Austrian Transport Minister Norbert Hofer, who is also a member of the Freedom Party.

Despite Strache’s resignation, the future of Austria’s coalition government — which has faced repeated scandals in recent months and appeared unstable even before the leaked videos emerged — is uncertain.

As one of Europe’s highest-profile far-right leaders, Strache shaped Austrian politics for years and was also considered to be an influential voice abroad, where he was known for his anti-immigration stance among European counterparts. His resignation may deal a blow to European anti-immigration parties’ attempts to position themselves as credible government alternatives, but it may also mobilize the party’s core supporter base in Austria.

On the other side of the political spectrum, thousands of anti-government protesters rallied in Vienna’s city center on Saturday, demanding new elections.

If the coalition were to break apart, the far-right party could still prove a major obstacle to forming a new, more moderate coalition.

Neither Strache nor Kurz responded to requests by The Washington Post for further comment.

Kurz was expected to make a statement later Saturday, after a day of protests that were also directed at him. The 32-year-old chancellor had repeatedly backed his far-right allies in the past amid a number of scandals, triggering criticism that his approach was emboldening the Austrian far-right, even though the conservative leader maintained that he called out his coalition partner whenever necessary.

His critics argue that Kurz’s rapid ascent in Austrian politics and his efforts to rise to the top office resulted in serious mistakes, including the decision to hand the Freedom Party control of the Interior Ministry after the 2017 elections. The ministry is responsible for overseeing the domestic intelligence agency responsible for right-wing and Islamist extremism investigations.

Only months after taking control, Austrian police raided that intelligence agency on Feb. 28, 2018, seizing documents that also included details on the far-right party, which has faced extremism accusations for decades. Documents provided by foreign partner agencies were also seized and some of those agencies later halted or restricted intelligence sharing with their Austrian counterparts, over fears their information would end up in the hands of the Russians, who have deep ties to the Freedom Party. The Post first reported those repercussions in August.

Austrian media outlets reported on Saturday that the far right’s oversight over the Interior Ministry could become the breaking point for the right-wing coalition, with Kurz reportedly asking the Freedom Party to give up control over it and the far-right party refusing to do so.

The party and Strache, its leader since 2005, also stand accused of creating a culture in which extremists feel safe to voice xenophobic or anti-Semitic remarks, critics say.

Austria’s Mauthausen Committee, an association focused on preserving the memory of Austria’s Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, has counted more than 100 incidents of Freedom Party officials being involved in right-wing extremist activities since 2013.

“What is striking is that such ‘isolated cases’ have not decreased, but rather increased since the Freedom Party became part of government,” said an open letter addressed to Kurz on April 9, which was signed by the committee, alongside Jewish groups and groups against right-wing extremism, as well as survivors of concentration camps.

Anti-racism groups and Jewish organizations have called out what they see as tolerance for extremist ideology within the party.

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