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Monday, October 18, 2021

Austrian government teeters as Greens look for exit

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Austria’s government was hanging by a thread Thursday after Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s junior coalition partner questioned whether he could remain in office as he faces a criminal investigation into corruption allegations. 

Greens leader Werner Kogler, whose party has been in coalition with Kurz’s People’s Party since early 2020, met with Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen on Thursday to consult about a way forward. Kurz told Austrian public television late Monday that he had no intention of resigning and has dismissed prosecutors’ allegations against him as “manufactured.” 

“We can’t just return to business as usual,” Kogler said in a statement before his meeting with the president. “The capacity of the chancellor to carry out the duties of his office under these circumstances is in question. We must ensure stability and order.” 

The probe against Kurz and nine close associates concerns allegations that he masterminded a scheme, beginning when he was foreign minister in 2016, to fuel his rise to power by diverting public funds to buy off pollsters and journalists.   

The nature of the accusations would give any coalition partner pause, but has put the Greens in a particular bind because the party has sold itself to voters as a force against corruption. Attempts by Kurz and his allies to discredit the authorities’ investigation — earlier this week a prominent conservative MP claimed “left-wing cells” in the prosecutor’s office were behind the investigations — have further strained relations between the governing parties.  

Kurz, who met separately with Van der Bellen late Thursday, said afterward that he saw no reason not to preserve the coalition with the Greens. 

“We stand by this government,” he said. 

Yet at this stage, the government’s survival no longer depends on him. 

Kogler’s statement on Thursday triggered a chain of events that many observers believe will inevitably hasten the collapse of the current coalition. The Green leader said he intended to meet with the other parties represented in parliament in the coming days, a process seen as a possible prelude to a four-party alliance against Kurz’s People’s Party. 

Parliamentary leaders scheduled a special session for Tuesday to discuss the affair and opposition parties, all of which have called on Kurz to step down, said they intended to call a no-confidence vote against him. The opposition needs only six Green votes in order to achieve the simple majority they’d need to remove Kurz from office. 

Such a move could pave the way for the Greens to join the other three parties represented in the parliament — the Social Democrats, the liberal Neos and the far-right Freedom Party — in a broad-based alliance. That would likely only function as a minority government with the tacit support of the Freedom Party, however, because including the far-right would be too divisive for the others. 

Another option would be for the president, who holds the power to name a chancellor, to put a technocratic government in place, as he did after the collapse of Kurz’s first coalition following the Ibiza affair, until a new election could be held. 

The easiest solution to the crisis would be for Kurz to resign and for someone else in his party to take over as chancellor while keeping the coalition with the Greens in place. The next regular election isn’t due until the fall of 2024. 

Under Austria’s constitution, the process of switching chancellors in the middle of a legislative period is straightforward because voters elect parties and not a government leader.  

But the People’s Party made clear on Thursday that it wanted Kurz to be chancellor and only Kurz. 

In a show of solidarity with the chancellor, People’s Party cabinet officials and influential party interest groups, such as the seniors’ association, said Kurz had their full confidence, as did the party’s powerful regional leaders. The latter group, consisting of several state governors, was expected to meet in Vienna on Thursday evening with the chancellor.  

The associations said in a statement that Kurz was the target of a concerted effort to remove him from office. They were silent about who was supposedly behind the alleged plot, however. 

“Sebastian Kurz has our full support,” said Ingrid Korosec, president of the People’s Party Seniors. “Like all previous accusations against him, these too will turn out to be false.” 

In addition to the allegations of corruption leveled against Kurz this week, he is under investigation for committing perjury in testimony to parliament. An indictment in that case is expected any day. 

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