VIENNA (Reuters) - Corruption scandals in Austria’s southernmost province claimed another victim on Wednesday when the head of the right-wing Freedom Party of Carinthia (FPK) quit, saying he could no longer put up with constant “media baiting”.
Uwe Scheuch announced he would exit politics but insisted this was not an admission of wrongdoing in a widening furore that is getting huge media attention and could play a role in national elections due next year.
His brother Kurt took over Scheuch’s vacant posts.
Scheuch, who was also deputy governor of the province, leaves just days after Carinthia’s conservative leader resigned while admitting in court he took part in a kickback scheme to milk money from the sale of state bank Hypo Alpe Adria in 2007.
The abrupt departure of People’s Party (OVP) regional head Josef Martinz last week capped a series of corruption scandals that have dented confidence in public officials and prompted Austria’s parliament in June to adopt a sweeping ethics package.
Carinthia is a stronghold for the Freedom Party, whose eurosceptic and nationalist themes have put the country’s largest opposition party in a strong position to challenge the coalition of centre-left Social Democrats (SPO) and the centre-right OVP in elections due by September 2013.
Political analysts say the drumbeat of corruption headlines could hurt the OVP and Freedom in the next national elections, boosting chances for the SPO-led coalition to remain in power by dashing prospects for a right-of-centre governing alliance.
Sheuch, grandson of the Freedom Party’s co-founder, is a political heir of far-right leader Joerg Haider and rose to power when Haider died in a 2008 car crash. Haider split with the Freedom Party before he died, but the FPK and the national Freedom Party under Heinz-Christian Strache remain allies.
Strache on his Facebook page called Scheuch’s decision a “creditable step in the interest of Carinthia and the Free Democrat community”, adding that cooperation with the FPK would go on.
Scheuch, 43, has denied accusations he also tried to wring kickbacks from a tax adviser who got an inflated 12 million euro ($14.8 million) fee to consult on the bank sale. Prosecutors are probing possible money laundering in the case.
Scheuch has appealed against his 2011 conviction on charges he sought to secure party donations in return for getting Austrian citizenship for a Russian investor.
He told a hastily arranged news conference in Klagenfurt he was going because he was fed up with a “media baiting campaign that has gone on for more than two years against me, my family and people close to me”, reiterating he would clear his name.
“Uwe Scheuch, ladies and gentlemen, you can neither bend nor break,” he told reporters.
Reporting by Michael Shields