Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, of the Austrian People's Party, OEVP, addresses the media during a news conference in Vienna, Austria, Monday, May 20, 2019. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has called for an early election after the resignation of his vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache from the Freedom Party spelled an end to his governing coalition. (AP Photo/Michael Gruber)

Austria in political chaos after scandal fells coalition

May 20, 2019 - 7:57 am

VIENNA (AP) — Political chaos reigned in Austria on Monday, two days after the chancellor called for a new election and pulled the plug on his governing coalition with the far-right Freedom Party, whose leader quit over an apparent influence-peddling scandal involving a purported Russian investor.

Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz acknowledged that the scandal, which erupted on Friday and brought down the government just a day later, "has damaged the image of our country around the world."

He pledged to ensure stability over the coming months, but didn't immediately specify how — or say what would happen to the Freedom Party's remaining ministers.

Kurz called for a new national election after Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache quit his post and ended his 14-year leadership of the Freedom Party on Saturday following the emergence of a damning video showing his behavior at a boozy gathering in Ibiza two years ago. The national election is expected in September.

Strache's resignation was a setback for populist and nationalist forces as Europe heads into the final days of campaigning for the European Parliament elections, which run from Thursday through Sunday.

The Freedom Party is the junior member of Kurz's governing coalition, which took power in December 2017. It appeared keen to keep its remaining ministers in place until the election, but that was in doubt after a minister from Kurz's People's Party, Gernot Bluemel, told ORF television that he expects Kurz will dismiss Interior Minister Herbert Kickl.

Bluemel cited a need to get the bottom of the scandal triggered by a video, leaked to two German publications, in which Strache and party colleague Johann Gudenus are heard telling a purported Russian investor that she can expect lucrative construction contracts if she buys an Austrian newspaper and supports the Freedom Party. Gudenus has quit as leader of the party's parliamentary group and is leaving the party.

The Freedom Party said it would pull its ministers out of the outgoing government if Kickl is dismissed. Kickl said he would meet Kurz on Monday afternoon. Kurz said the minister appeared to lack "the necessary awareness to clear up and deal with this scandal," but didn't directly address Kickl's position.

Kurz, 32, became leader of the People's Party in 2017. He endorsed a hard line on migration and public finances, and chose to ally with the Freedom Party after winning that year's election.

Kurz, who is personally popular, said Saturday that "enough is enough" — a reference to a string of smaller scandals involving the Freedom Party that had plagued his government. In recent months, those have included a poem in a party newsletter comparing migrants to rats and questions over links to extreme-right groups.

Kickl, a longtime campaign mastermind of the Freedom Party, has drawn criticism over matters including a raid last year on Austria's BVT spy agency, which opposition parties claimed was an attempt by the new government to purge domestic political enemies.

His party said he had done nothing wrong.

The Russian government, meanwhile, said it couldn't comment on the video "because it has nothing to do with the Russian Federation, its president or the government."

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said of the woman in the Strache video that set off the crisis: "We don't know who that woman is and whether she's Russian or not."

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Moulson reported from Berlin. Vladimir Isachenkov contributed from Moscow.

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