Austria heading for September election after far-right video scandal

Austria's president on Sunday recommended a new election be held in early September, saying he wanted to restore trust in the government after a video scandal led to the resignation of the vice chancellor.

Vice-chancellor stepped down over allegations of corruption tied to government contracts

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz says he sees the snap elections as the only way to solve the crisis involving a video that appears to show the country's vice-chancellor discussing government contracts with an alleged Russian investor. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Austria's president on Sunday recommended a new election be held in early September, saying he wanted to restore trust in the government after a video scandal led to the resignation of the vice-chancellor.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pulled the plug on the coalition and called for a snap election on Saturday after his deputy, Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, quit over a video showed him discussing fixing state contracts in return for favours from a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.

Kurz accepted that the video was "catastrophic," although he denied breaking the law or following through on discussions.

It is most important that Austrians are given the chance of a new start to rebuild trust in its government, President Alexander van der Bellen said in a statement at his Hofburg residence in Vienna.

"This new beginning should take place quickly, as quickly as the provisions of the Federal Constitution permit, so I plead for elections ... in September, if possible at the beginning of September," the president said. Voting is seen as impossible earlier because voters are away for the school holidays in summer.

Heinz-Christian Strache resigned as vice-chancellor over a video that purportedly showed him discussing fixing state contracts in return for favours. (Michael Gruber/Associated Press)

Strache has described the video sting as a "targeted political assassination" and said it never led to any money changing hands. He insisted the only crime that took place was illegally videotaping a private dinner party. Two German newspapers on Friday published excerpts of the secretly recorded talks held in July 2017 at a rented villa in  Ibiza, Spain.

Kurz met with van der Bellen on Sunday to discuss the timetable for a new vote and the makeup of a caretaker government after the 18-month-old coalition of conservatives and the far right collapsed.

The pair said at their joint news conference that stability was a main priority for them for the coming months.

Kurz repeated that he saw the snap elections as the only way to solve the crisis. "The new elections were a necessity, not a wish," he said.

Opposition to populist movements ahead of EU vote

Days before a European parliamentary election, politicians from Europe's mainstream parties have called on voters to stand against the far right.

Strache's party, part of Austria's ruling coalition since Kurz formed it in 2017, has been one of the most successful groups among the anti-immigrant and nationalist movements that have surged across Europe in recent years.

Mainstream leaders across the continent made clear they hoped his downfall would have an impact far beyond Austria in the May 23-26 vote for the European Parliament. The Freedom Party is part of an alliance of European nationalist parties led by Italy's Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of the League party, who held a mass meeting in Milan on Saturday with Marine Le Pen of France's National Rally.

'A submission to foreign forces'

"A few months ago, Marine Le Pen was singing the praises of Strache, saying how formidable he was," French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said.

"[Strache] has been forced to resign. We find out why: that he was caught trying to sell his services to foreign forces. Behind this nationalist movement is a submission to foreign forces," Le Maire told BFM TV.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Saturday: "We're having to deal with populist movements that in many areas are contemptuous of [European] values, who want to destroy the Europe of our values. We have to stand up to this decisively."

Europe's far-right parties have surged at the polls since 2015, when more than a million asylum seekers entered the European Union, mainly by foot across the Balkans.

Since then, far-right parties have become the dominant political movements in much of former Communist eastern Europe and claimed a share of power in coalitions in Austria and Italy. Britain's 2016 vote to leave the EU altogether is seen as part of the same trend.

Neither Salvini nor Le Pen addressed the Austrian scandal directly. Salvini and his allies hope to emerge as the fourth or even third largest bloc in the European parliament after this week's election, moving decisively into the mainstream.

'Politics of good sense'

"There are no extremists, racists or fascists in this square," Salvini told Saturday's rally in front of Milan's Gothic cathedral. "Here you won't find the far right, but the politics of good sense. The extremists are those who have governed Europe for the past 20 years."

German television commentator Christian Nitsche said the Austrian scandal could have a wider impact by showing that the populist tide was not unstoppable.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators opposed to right-wing populism and nationalism took to the streets in a number of European cities on Sunday before the May 23-26 elections to the European parliament. Here, demonstrators rally in Berlin. (Alexander Becher/EPA-EFE)

"Austria can now send a signal that it is able to free itself from this whirlpool. This would probably not yet be a turning point on Europe's wrong path, but a sign of hope that a first country has the strength to turn away from baiting, anti-democratic politicians and parties," he wrote.

Istvan Ujhelyi, a Socialist member of the European parliament from Hungary, a country dominated by nationalist leader Viktor Orban's Fidesz Party, called Strache "the first domino" in a line of like-minded politicians he predicted would soon be brought low.

"Next up are Salvini, Le Pen, Orban and the rest of the far-right puppets on the Moscow leash."

With files from CBC News