VIENNA (Reuters) - The disgraced former leader of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO), Heinz-Christian Strache, said on Wednesday he is running for office with a splinter party, a fresh blow to the FPO after Strache was ensnared in a sting that forced it out of government.
The FPO expelled Strache in December after its support collapsed in September’s parliamentary election over scandals including the video sting, in which Strache offered to fix government contracts at a dinner party in Ibiza with a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece.
Strache, who led the FPO for 14 years, has apologised for the “massive mistake” that led conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to end his coalition with the FPO in May. Kurz is now back in government, this time with the Greens.
Prosecutors are investigating Strache on suspicion of fraud in connection with the sting footage. He denies committing any crimes.
“We are the original and not some gentlemen who swam along in my slipstream all these years. ... I stand ready to lead this citizens’ movement with you,” Strache said in a speech to supporters, touching on typical FPO themes like railing against illegal immigration and a recently introduced smoking ban.
Strache said he plans to run as the lead candidate in Vienna’s provincial election this autumn for the Alliance for Austria (DAO), which was founded in December as a group within Vienna’s regional assembly by Strache loyalists with FPO seats.
That means he is also running for mayor in “Red Vienna” a bastion of the Social Democrats (SPO), who have led the city and province for decades. When he led the FPO in the Vienna election in 2015 his party came second with roughly 31% to the SPO’s 40%.
While Strache’s image has been tarnished by the video sting scandal, he remains popular with many core FPO voters, suggesting he should be able to siphon some support from his former party in his hometown.
Strache portrayed himself as the victim of political and judicial intrigue ahead of the election, which he hopes will provide his political rehabilitation.
“The more they attacked and persecuted me, the more the decision matured within me to step in the ring once again with you for the Austrian people,” Strache said.
Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Leslie Adler