Austria FM set to replace Kurz embattled after graft claims

·3-min read

Austria's top diplomat Alexander Schallenberg on Sunday said an "enormously challenging task" awaited him after embattled Chancellor Sebastian Kurz named him as his successor in a spectacular leadership change in the EU member.

Kurz -- at age 35 one of Europe's youngest leaders and long celebrated as a "whizz kid" -- announced late Saturday that he was stepping down as chancellor, bowing to pressure to resign after he was implicated in a corruption scandal.

Saying he wanted to "make space to prevent chaos," the conservative -- who has headed two governments over the last four years -- has suggested foreign minister Schallenberg to take over the chancellery.

- 'Crisis over' -

President Alexander Van der Bellen said he would swear in Schallenberg on Monday so that "the work for our country can continue".

"This government crisis is over," he said in a televised national address after a flurry of talks.

In brief comments before meeting the president earlier in the day, Schallenberg spoke of an "enormously challenging task and time, not easy for any of us".

"But I think we are showing an incredible degree of responsibility for this country," the 52-year-old told reporters.

Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler of the Greens, who had separate meetings with the president and Schallenberg on Sunday, hailed "a new chapter in the government coalition work".

The 59-year-old had already indicated late Saturday that his party would support Schallenberg to keep the conservative-Greens coalition in government.

Pressure on Kurz to resign, including from the Greens, started after prosecutors on Wednesday raided several locations linked to his People's Party (OeVP).

They announced that Kurz and nine other individuals were under investigation over claims that government money was used between 2016 and 2018 in a corrupt deal to ensure positive media coverage.

Kurz has denied any wrongdoing, reiterating on Saturday that allegations against him were "false" and that he would seek to clear up the matter while he continues as party leader and as a lawmaker in parliament.

- 'Place holder' -

Analyst Thomas Hofer said Kurz would, for now, continue to be "the most influential person in the People's Party on the national stage".

"In Kurz' view, Schallenberg is a place holder... Kurz made his move in such a way that he still is in control of the party and the government team on his side," Hofer told AFP.

The opposition has blasted the continued conservative-Greens coalition given the graft investigation, with Social Democrats (SPOe) leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner saying even on the back benches Kurz would remain a "shadow chancellor".

The OeVP-Greens coalition -- a first at a national level -- entered office in January 2020 and has already been put under strain several times by the fallout from other corruption scandals and differences over questions such as refugee policy.

In the latest scandal, prosecutors' core allegation is that between 2016 and 2018 finance ministry resources were used to finance "partially manipulated opinion polls that served an exclusively party-political interest".

This correlates to the time period in which Kurz, already a government minister, took over the leadership of the OeVP and later that of the Alpine nation at the helm of a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

Prosecutors allege that payments were made to an unnamed media company -- widely understood to be the Oesterreich tabloid, which was also raided on Wednesday -- in return for publishing these surveys.

In 2019, Kurz's first coalition with the FPOe collapsed after his ally became engulfed in a corruption scandal dubbed "Ibizagate".

But fresh elections once again saw Kurz's OeVP come out on top, leading him to form a coalition with the Greens from January 2020.

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