May 20, 2019 / 6:11 PM / 3 months ago

Austria's Kurz hopes to sidestep scandal to stay in power

VIENNA (Reuters) - Even though he brought the far right into power, Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz hopes voters will see him as having put his country first by sticking by his coalition partners despite their history of scandals, and then ditching them.

Austria's Chancellor Kurz speaks during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, May 20, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

It just might work if the public believes his disavowal of his former allies in the Freedom Party (FPO) and the maths go his way in September, when Austrians are expected to vote in a snap election brought about by the latest FPO transgression.

Kurz called off his coalition with the FPO on Saturday after its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was caught on video offering to fix government contracts for a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece.

The apparent sting operation followed a series of lesser scandals that strained the governing coalition.

Most were related to anti-Semitism or racism involving the FPO, a party formed in 1956 and first led by a former officer in the SS — the armed wing of the Nazi party — and which has struggled for years to clean up its image.

With each scandal, Kurz distanced himself from the far right without seriously calling the coalition into question. And while the far right’s support fell, his remained solid, even though the opposition argued he must share the blame.

To remain in power after September’s election, however, the conservative Kurz will need another coalition partner and his options are limited. The speech in which he pulled the plug on the coalition offered clues as to how he might change the calculus.

“His speech on Saturday was basically ‘I’d like an absolute majority’,” said political analyst Kathrin Stainer-Haemmerle of Carintha University of Applied Sciences. She added, however: “An absolute majority won’t happen as things stand.”

Austria’s proportional representation system means it is rare for one party to get a majority and coalitions are almost always necessary, which is why in December 2017 Kurz made Austria one of the few European countries to have the far right in government.

The only other party that could have given him a majority in parliament are the Social Democrats, with whom a coalition appears highly unlikely for now. To avoid having to turn to either of those two parties, Kurz seems to be aiming higher.

“I don’t believe it is currently possible with anyone,” Kurz said on Saturday, referring to the possibility of forming a government free of scandal that will implement his agenda.

“The FPO is unable to, the Social Democrats do not share my political ideas, and the small parties are too small to really provide support.”

But if he can increase his share of the vote to 40 percent or more, a coalition might be possible with the small, liberal Neos party, which has similar policies on deregulation and helping business.

“The aim is to have options, more than one option,” political analyst Thomas Hofer said. “The best would be with a small party.”

It will be a tall order for Kurz, whose coalition with the far right has ended in the kind of mess that critics predicted when the alliance was formed.

CHUTZPAH

The first opinion poll since the coalition collapsed showed support for Kurz’s party rising to 38 percent and the Neos jumping to 9 percent - the two parties were the biggest gainers. The survey had a margin of error of around 4 points.

To achieve a similar jump in support at the upcoming election, however, Kurz will have to avoid becoming tainted by the scandal that brought down his vice chancellor and sank their coalition.

That means voters must believe Kurz’s account that he suffered through his coalition with the far right rather than being responsible for the outcome.

“There were many situations in which I found it very difficult to swallow all that,” he said on Saturday, referring to previous scandals involving the FPO.

Whether he manages to convince Austrians of that narrative remains to be seen.

Austria's Chancellor Kurz speaks during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, May 20, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

“It requires a certain shamelessness or a certain chutzpah to stand there and stick to something that hard, even if it doesn’t seem very plausible,” Stainer-Haemmerle said.

She said it was, however, a leadership quality.

“(U.S. President Donald) Trump does it very similarly ... It just is how he says it is, and he believes it so firmly that he even manages to bring other people to believe it, too.”

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Giles Elgood

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