June 17, 2019 / 7:43 AM / 3 months ago

Disgraced ex-leader of Austrian far right turns down EU Parliament seat

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austrian far-right veteran Heinz-Christian Strache, who quit as deputy head of the coalition government over a video sting, said on Monday he would not take up a European Parliament seat, forgoing a move that might have hurt his Freedom Party further.

Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache reacts as he addresses the media in Vienna, Austria, May 18, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Strache stepped down as vice chancellor and Freedom Party (FPO) leader on May 18, the day after German media published secretly filmed footage from a 2017 dinner party in Ibiza at which Strache met a woman posing as a Russian oligarch’s niece.

In the footage, Strache appeared to offer to fix state contracts, though he says he did nothing illegal and none of his comments were followed through on. Anti-corruption prosecutors are also investigating Strache on suspicion of breach of trust.

Strache was entitled to the European Parliament seat because of Austria’s electoral system, in which voters pick a party list and can express a preference for one candidate on that list. With enough preferential votes, a candidate jumps to the top of their party’s list and the front of the queue for its seats.

Although Strache was 42nd and last on the list of a party that secured just three seats in last month’s European Parliament election, he got enough preferential votes - roughly 45,000, or almost a third of his party’s votes, well above a 5% threshold for jumping up the list - to get one of its seats.

“I have ... decided not to take up the EU mandate,” Strache said in a statement, adding that he would not return to active politics until the origins of the footage were clear.

“This decision is not the result of a political calculation or of any deal,” he added, referring to the fact his far-right FPO on Friday picked his wife Philippa as a candidate for parliament in elections widely expected to be held on Sept. 29.

He could have accepted the seat as soon as the results of the May 26 vote came through, but he kept Austria guessing as to whether he would take it up and risk further damaging his party’s image. He had until next month to decide.

The political damage from the video sting scandal has been great. Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called off his coalition with the FPO the day Strache stepped down.

Kurz then tried to stay on as head of what was effectively a minority government but parliament forced it from office, saying Kurz deserved at least some of the blame for the fallout from the scandal.

Reporting by Francois Murphy, Editing by William Maclean

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