Europe’s ailing centre-right is mourning the departure of a second high-profile conservative leader in the space of a month, as Austria’s chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, announced he would resign over allegations he encouraged the use of public funds to buy himself positive media coverage.
The fall from grace of the 35-year-old leader of the Austrian People’s party (ÖVP) comes just weeks after its German sister party failed to fill the space left by the outgoing chancellor, Angela Merkel, and crashed to the worst result in its history at federal elections.
Supporters of the Austrian leader, long hailed as a more aggressively conservative “anti-Merkel”, hope he will continue to pull strings in his role as ÖVP president and leader of its parliamentary group after Alexander Schallenberg, a long-term Kurz ally and current foreign minister, takes over the chancellery this coming week.
“What we need now are stable conditions,” Kurz told reporters in Vienna on Saturday, while denying the substance of the corruption allegations. “So, in order to resolve the stalemate, I want to make way to prevent chaos and ensure stability.”
The swift handover of power to Schallenberg heads off a looming vote of no confidence that could potentially have had Kurz’s party ousted from power in favour of an ideology-busting government of national unity between the Austrian Social Democrats (SPÖ), Green party, the liberal Neos and the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ).
By immediately switching to the backbenches, Kurz would also gain parliamentary immunity – although the Austrian daily newspaper Der Standard reported on Sunday the outgoing chancellor would personally apply to have the special privilege lifted so he could prove his innocence.
A swift return to power – something Kurz achieved, with an increased majority, after the collapse of his coalition government with the far right over the so-called Ibiza affair in 2019 – seems unlikely, however.
The allegations that led to the Austrian chancellor’s resignation first came to light last Wednesday after Austrian anti-corruption officers searched offices at Kurz’s chancellery, the finance ministry, his party headquarters and one of the country’s most powerful media houses.
The prosecutors suspect a network of conservative politicians around Kurz used funds from the finance ministry’s public purse to buy favourable newspaper coverage, as well as to “finance partially manipulated opinion polls that served an exclusively party political interest”.
Even though the prosecutors have not named specific newspapers, the owners of the tabloid Österreich last week put out a statement denying reports it had guaranteed favourable coverage of Kurz and his party in exchange for taxpayers’ money. Over the last two years, the Österreich media group is reported to have received €1.33m (£1.13m) for advertisements placed by the finance ministry.
The tone of text messages that allegedly prove Kurz’s awareness of these backroom deals has shocked the Austrian public as much as their content, with the usually suave chancellor and his colleagues describing political rivals as “arses”.
The Austrian president, Alexander Van der Bellen, on Friday criticised the “tone of disrespect” shown towards individuals and state institutions. The Green party, a junior coalition partner in the current government, said Kurz was no longer fit to be chancellor.
On Saturday, Kurz said the messages were written “in the heat of the battle” and had been taken out of context, saying the accusations against him “are false and I will be able to clear this up”.
The outgoing Austrian chancellor’s fall from grace has been as swift as his rise to the upper echelons of the Alpine republic’s power structures. Having been made state secretary for integration at 24, Kurz rose to the foreign ministry at 27, and became one the world’s youngest democratically elected heads of government after leading the ÖVP to an election victory in 2017.
He has refashioned the centre-right party in his image since becoming its leader in May 2017, centralising decision-making powers and changing its colours from the traditional black to turquoise.
Kurz’s approach to dealing with the rise of a xenophobic, populist outfit to his right contrasted with the strategy pursued by the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Whereas Angela Merkel’s party insisted on a “firewall” against the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), Kurz co-opted the Freedom party’s hardline immigration stances and entered a power-sharing agreement with it in his first term.
As the CDU is licking its wounds after 26 September’s painful defeat at federal elections, several voices of the German centre-right have pointed to Kurz as a model for renewing the party. “We need a German Sebastian Kurz,” the head of the CDU’s youth movement demanded only at the start of the month. After the events of the last week, such calls are going to be heard more rarely.