‘Neither saint nor criminal’: Austria’s former chancellor Kurz quits politics

Sebastian Kurz dominated domestic politics for five years before being placed under corruption investigation

Austria’s former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has dominated his centre-right People’s party (ÖVP) and his country’s political life for the past five years, has unexpectedly announced he is leaving politics.

Slick, suave and long seen as a political wunderkind, Kurz became one of the world’s youngest democratically elected heads of government at 31 in 2017, but resigned as chancellor in October after being placed under investigation on suspicion of corruption.

On Thursday, he stepped down from his remaining posts as head of the ÖVP and parliamentary group leader, saying he had decided to quit politics in order to focus on his family life. He recently became a father.

He pushed back strongly against public and media criticism and the allegations of corruption. “As chancellor you have so many decisions you have to make every day that you know early on that you will also make wrong decisions,” he said.

Describing himself as “neither a saint nor a criminal”, he added in an unusually long statement: “You’re always under observation. You also constantly have the feeling you’re being hunted.”

Kurz stepped down as chancellor under strong pressure from his coalition partner, the Greens, after anti-corruption investigators searched offices at the chancellery, the finance ministry, his party headquarters and a powerful publisher.

Prosecutors suspect that a network of conservative politicians around Kurz used funds from the finance ministry’s public purse to buy favourable newspaper coverage and to “finance partially manipulated opinion polls” to boost his and the ÖVP’s image.

The tabloid Österreich has denied it guaranteed favourable coverage of Kurz and his party in exchange for taxpayers’ money, but it was reportedly paid €1.33m (£1.13m) for advertisements placed by the finance ministry over the past two years alone.

Prosecutors say Kurz, who is under investigation on suspicion of giving false statements and breach of public trust, has denied any wrongdoing. Nine other individuals close to the former chancellor, as well as three organisations, are also under investigation, suspected of varying degrees of corruption and bribery.

Kurz’s fall from grace has been as swift as was his rise. State secretary for integration at 24 and foreign minister at 27, he became ÖVP leader in May 2017 and chancellor six months later, and rebuilt the party around him.

He entered into a power-sharing agreement with the xenophobic far-right Freedom party in his first term, a coalition that collapsed in 2019 when the populist party became engulfed in a different corruption scandal.

Kurz said in his resignation statement that the accusations had hindered his ability to work, requiring him to spend his last months in office “defending [myself] against accusations and proceedings, and no longer competing for the best ideas”.

His successor as chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg, a career diplomat, had been widely considered a placeholder until Kurz could clear his name and return to office. The interior minister, Karl Nehammer, will succeed Kurz as party chair.


Jon Henley Europe correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Austria’s Green party on verge of entering government
Coalition with conservative ÖVP will give environmentalists power for first time

Philip Oltermann

30, Dec, 2019 @2:37 PM

Article image
Austria’s new coalition agrees to extend school headscarf ban
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also revives plan for ‘precautionary detention’ of asylum seekers

Jennifer Rankin

02, Jan, 2020 @2:29 PM

Article image
Sebastian Kurz departure is further blow to Europe’s centre-right
Resignation of Austrian chancellor follows Germany’s CDU crashing to its worst federal election result

Philip Oltermann in Berlin

10, Oct, 2021 @2:53 PM

Article image
Austria's ousted chancellor vows to return despite no-confidence vote
ÖVP’s Sebastian Kurz is optimistic about September re-election after EU vote triumph

Philip Oltermann in Berlin

28, May, 2019 @1:14 PM

Article image
Austrian populists expect to be kingmakers as politics takes turn to right
Nationalist Freedom party dictates tone of Sunday’s election, as Social Democrats tainted by ‘dirty tricks’ strategy

Philip Oltermann in Vienna

11, Oct, 2017 @8:09 AM

Article image
Austrian elections: support for far-right collapses
Sebastian Kurz looks certain to reclaim his title of world’s youngest leader as his ÖVP takes 37%

Philip Oltermann

29, Sep, 2019 @8:13 PM

Article image
Rise of far-right in Italy and Austria gives Putin some friends in the west
Russian president in contact with two capitals that share belief in nation-first politics and mistrust of alliances

Jon Henley European affairs correspondent

07, Jun, 2018 @4:00 AM

Article image
Muted protests in Vienna as far-right ministers enter Austria's government
Austria becomes only country in western Europe with far-right presence in government, as coalition sworn in

Philip Oltermann

18, Dec, 2017 @3:19 PM

Article image
Covid: Austrians who pass antigen test to be exempt from lockdown
Italy prepares for national lockdown over Christmas; Spanish minister warns of third wave

Sam Jones in Madrid, Philip Oltermann in Berlin, Angela Giuffrida in Rome and Kim Willsher in Paris

18, Dec, 2020 @6:31 PM

Article image
Negative campaign sites scandal shakes up Austrian election race
Chancellor denies knowledge of sites of antisemitic and xenophobic conspiracy theories, allegedly run by former adviser

Philip Oltermann

05, Oct, 2017 @5:00 AM