May 26, 2019 / 3:50 PM / in 2 months

Austria's Kurz triumphs with vote, opposition still calls for his head

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz strengthened his hand in his fight to save his job as his conservative party came far ahead of rivals in Sunday’s European election, but the main opposition party said it would seek to depose him on Monday anyway.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz gestures during a meeting after European Parliament elections at the Austrian People's Party (OeVP) headquarters in Vienna, Austria, May 26, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Video footage of a sting operation in which the far-right Freedom Party’s (FPO) leader Heinz-Christian Strache appeared to discuss fixing government contracts forced him to step down as Kurz’s deputy and party leader last weekend. Kurz ended their coalition and now heads a caretaker government that he hopes to use as a springboard to re-election.

But with the next parliamentary election expected in September, opposition parties say Kurz must share the blame for the political crisis set off by the footage of his former coalition partner. A no-confidence motion against Kurz will be brought in parliament on Monday that could force him out.

“We came to the conclusion that we will not express confidence in the whole (government), including in the newly named ministers,” the leader of the Social Democrats, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, told broadcaster ORF on Sunday night after a meeting of her party’s leadership. The party had been undecided.

While another opposition party is planning to submit the motion of no-confidence against Kurz, Rendi-Wagner said the Social Democrats, the biggest opposition party, would submit their own motion against the whole government including Kurz.

Rather than punish Kurz’s People’s Party (OVP) in Sunday’s polls for governing with the far right for 17 months, voters gave it a bigger share of support than in the parliamentary election it won in 2017, a count of all but postal ballots on Sunday night showed.

The Social Democrats finished more than 10 points behind the OVP, performing worse than in 2017 or the last European Parliament election.

Kurz has presented himself as a victim of the current political crisis rather than a midwife to it.

The OVP secured 34.9% of the vote, ahead of the Social Democrats on 23.4% and the FPO on 17.2%, an updated projection by pollster SORA factoring in the latest count of all but postal ballots showed.

The Greens came in fourth on 14%, a leap from the last parliamentary election, in which they failed to make the 4% threshold for entering the assembly, but slightly less than in the last European election in 2014.

FAR RIGHT HOLDS KEY

In parliament on Monday, Kurz’s immediate survival is now likely to depend on the FPO, many of whose members are furious at him for ending their coalition over a scandal they believe could have been confined to one man in their government.

The FPO has not said how it will vote but its new leader Norbert Hofer told ORF on Sunday: “There is a certain leaning”. He did not elaborate.

If Kurz loses the vote, Austria’s president will have to nominate a new chancellor who can govern until the next election. Kurz has said that whatever happens, it will be up to the people to decide then.

Rendi-Wagner said Kurz had not taken the confidence-building steps she and her party had called for after Kurz replaced outgoing FPO ministers with civil servants last week.

“We will make a recommendation to the Social Democratic parliamentary membership, namely not to express confidence in Sebastian Kurz and his OVP one-party government,” Rendi-Wagner said, adding that she expected her lawmakers would formally agree at a meeting on Monday morning.

Additional reporting by Kirsti Knolle; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, Jane Merriman and Frances Kerry

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