May 22, 2019 / 12:23 PM / 5 months ago

Austria's Kurz seeks to contain scandal damage as fate hangs in balance

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz sought on Wednesday to contain the fallout from the collapse of his coalition government but did little to quell the anger of opposition parties that could depose him within days.

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and new Vice Chancellor Hartwig Loeger attend the swearing-in ceremony of the new ministers in Vienna, Austria May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Kurz, 32, came out on top in the initial power struggle with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) on Tuesday after he managed to oust their hardline interior minister in the wake of a video sting that brought down the FPO’s leader.

But he must now win the support of the opposition Social Democrats (SPO) or a furious FPO to survive a no-confidence vote due on Monday. Losing would deal him a serious blow as he seeks to use his caretaker role as a springboard from which to win a snap election expected in September.

“It is now important to do everything to ensure that one party’s crisis does not turn into a state crisis,” Kurz told a news conference.

Despite the uncertainty over whether parliament will sack him, Kurz, a young star among Europe’s conservatives, said he would continue talks with other parties and was not worried.

The FPO, whose ministers stepped down in unison in response to Kurz firing Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, said it had not yet decided how to vote.

But with much of the FPO angry at Kurz for ending their coalition and saying they are now unsuited to government after 17 months of working together, the Social Democrats are likely to determine the outcome of Monday’s vote.

They have not said how they will vote.

EUROPEAN VOTE

Rather than offer them an olive branch, however, Kurz’s plan seemed to be to strong-arm them by appealing directly to voters, who will take part in the European Parliament election on Sunday, the day before parliament meets.

“On election Sunday the people have the possibility to set the course and decide which political direction they want to support,” Kurz said.

Deputy parliament speaker Doris Bures, a heavyweight within the SPO, called on him to take “confidence-building measures” in the coming days.

“It would really be the order of the day for the chancellor to move from ‘I’ to ‘we’ now,” she told broadcaster ORF overnight.

Her party said Kurz did not consult them on his choices of civil servants to fill the four vacant ministerial posts, who include a former Supreme Court president and two people with ties to the SPO.

“In life you always have to earn trust. And the last few days have shown that the chancellor has done nothing to ensure that parliament, which at the end of the day will take this decision, can place this trust in him,” Bures said.

Kurz’s election call also appeared to defy President Alexander Van der Bellen, who has the power to dismiss governments and dissolve parliament, who on Tuesday night told political leaders to put country before party, adding: “Now is not the time for campaign speeches.”

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz leaves the presidential office after the swearing-in ceremony of the new ministers in Vienna, Austria May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Kurz pulled the plug on his coalition last weekend after the release of a video that showed FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache apparently discussing fixing state contracts and how to circumvent party financing laws with a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece. It is unclear who was behind the sting.

Strache has acknowledged that the video was “catastrophic” but denies breaking the law.

Additional reporting by Kirsti Knolle and Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alison Williams

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