Austrian leader calls for early election after vice-chancellor resigns in corruption scandal

Austrian vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned Saturday after two German publications showed video of him apparently offering government contracts to a purported Russian investor.

Heinz-Christian Strache purportedly seen in video offering government contracts

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)

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called for an early election after his vice-chancellor resigned Saturday over a covertly shot video that showed him apparently promising government contracts to a purported Russian investor.

Kurz said he would ask President Alexander Van der Bellen to set a date for a new election "as soon as possible." The two are scheduled to discuss next steps on Sunday. 

Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned after two German publications, the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the weekly Der Spiegel, on Friday published extracts of a covert video purportedly showing Strache offering Austrian government contracts to a Russian woman who was allegedly interested in investing large amounts of money in Austria.

Strache's far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party is the smaller partner in Austria's ruling government coalition with Kurz's People's Party. At a news conference late Saturday, Kurz said talks with remaining officials from the Freedom Party showed they were not willing to make the changes Kurz felt necessary to continue the current coalition.

Kurz also said a possible coalition with the centre-left Social Democrats would derail the government's program of limiting debt and taxes.

'Stupid, irresponsible and a mistake' 

Strache's resignation was a black eye for the populist and nationalist forces who favour tighter European immigration policies. It came only a few days before the May 23-26 elections in 28 European Union nations to fill the European Parliament.

In his resignation statement earlier Saturday, Strache apologized but said he was set up in a "political assassination." He conceded his behaviour in the video was "stupid, irresponsible and a mistake."

In the video, the source of which the publications declined to reveal, Strache and party colleague Johann Gudenus are heard telling the unnamed woman she could expect lucrative construction work if she bought Austria's Kronen Zeitung newspaper and supported the Freedom Party.

Demonstrators gather in front of the Austrian Chancellors Office in Vienna on Saturday. (Michael Gruber/Associated Press)

The video spanned six hours of drink-fuelled conversation in a villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza between the Austrian politicians and the woman, who claimed to be the niece of a prominent Russian businessman.

The 49-year-old politician said he had been in a state of "increasing alcohol intoxication" and had "behaved like a teenager" in an attempt to "impress the attractive host." He said he had had no further contact with the woman and she did not donate to his party. He claimed to be a victim of the illegal use of surveillance equipment.

EU ramifications

A key topic in the EU elections has been the debate over immigration and human rights after Europe faced an influx in 2015 of migrants and asylum seekers from war-torn areas in the Mideast and Asia.

On one side are nationalist, anti-immigrant movements critical of the EU such as Austria's Freedom Party, the Alternative for Germany party and France's far-right National Rally party. They want to halt most immigration into Europe, especially from Muslim areas, and give more control back to national governments from EU headquarters in Brussels.

On the other side, pro-European movements such as continent's mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties see the EU parliament vote as a chance to reject populism and support European co-operation and integration.

In the video, Strache also appeared to suggest ways of funnelling money to his party via an unconnected foundation to circumvent Austrian rules on political donations.

The justice spokesman for the opposition Social Democratic Party, Hannes Jarolim, has asked prosecutors to look into the matter, the APA news agency reported. Jarolim reportedly claimed the statements in the video could constitute offences or attempted offences such as misuse of office, bribery and money laundering.