June 3, 2019 / 10:28 AM / 2 months ago

Still reeling from scandal, Austria swears in provisional government

VIENNA, June 3 (Reuters) - Austria’s new provisional government, which will act as a caretaker until an election widely expected in September, was sworn in on Monday and tasked with improving the country’s image after an embarrassing political scandal.

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen announced Constitutional Court President Brigitte Bierlein as his choice for chancellor last week after parliament ousted Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government in the wake of a video sting scandal that blew up Kurz’s alliance with the far right.

Van der Bellen has said the government will primarily keep the administrative wheels of government turning rather than take far-reaching decisions, and Bierlein says her aim is to bring some calm to Austrian politics after weeks of tumult.

“Half of Europe, half the world, is watching us after the events of recent weeks,” Van der Bellen said at the swearing-in ceremony, referring to the sting that forced far-right leader Heinz-Christian Strache to step down as vice chancellor and sparked the political crisis.

“Let’s show our best side,” Van der Bellen told the new ministers, half of whom are women.

After ending his coalition with the far-right Freedom Party over the video - in which Strache discussed possibly fixing state contracts with a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece - Kurz won an initial power struggle, forcing out the FPO interior minister, which prompted other FPO ministers to quit.

The FPO soon exacted revenge, backing a no-confidence motion against Kurz’s government submitted by the opposition Social Democrats (SPO) that forced it from office last week. Kurz will seek re-election in September. Strache has also stepped down as FPO leader but says he did nothing illegal. The ministers sworn in on Monday are career civil servants, but many also owe their success to one of Austria’s three main parties. For decades, senior posts were carved up between the two main centrist parties in what was effectively a duopoly. That has faded but the senior civil service remains politicised.

Bierlein was appointed vice president and then president of the Constitutional Court under the same political constellation - coalitions between Kurz’s conservative People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party.

Alexander Schallenberg, the new foreign minister, is a career diplomat so close to Kurz that he was on the OVP negotiating team that hammered out a coalition agreement with the FPO in 2017.

The new vice chancellor and justice minister, Clemens Jabloner, was a senior judge who worked in the chancellor’s office under SPO-led governments.

Finance Minister Eduard Mueller was a senior civil servant in the Finance Ministry, which he returned to from private enterprise under OVP Finance Minister Hans Joerg Schelling. (Reporting by Francois Murphy, Editing by William Maclean)

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