Austrian Social Democrats fire election adviser over fraud claims

Chancellor Christian Kern said party had severed ties to Tal Silberstein

Tal Silberstein, an adviser to Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern,  was detained on Monday in Israel on suspicion of using fake contracts to launder money. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Tal Silberstein, an adviser to Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, was detained on Monday in Israel on suspicion of using fake contracts to launder money. Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

 

Austria’s general election campaign has been shaken awake after the ruling Social Democrats (SPÖ) dropped a campaign adviser facing bribery and money-laundering charges.

Chancellor Christian Kern said his party had severed ties to Tal Silberstein, hired to conduct polling and public policy research, after news of his detention in Israel.

The SPÖ leader said his party had checked Mr Silberstein’s business contacts after hiring him in October but had not found “sufficient indication” of problems.

“Now we are confronted with new claims [and] the trust we had in him is not justified,” said Mr Kern.

Two days after describing the claims against Mr Silberstein as “complete nonsense”, the Austrian leader said it was “obviously a mistake not to have ended the co-operation earlier”.

Mr Silberstein is one of Israel’s most prominent political consultants, advising leaders across the political spectrum from Ehud Barak to Ariel Sharon and, more recently, prime minister Binyamin Netanjahu and Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko.

Together with billionaire business partners, Mr Silberstein has business interests in property and mining across Guinea, Angola and Sierra Leone. A firm linked to him that appeared in the Panama Papers was involved in property deals that cost the Bucharest government more than $160 million. In March an international arrest warrant was issued in his name.

He was detained on Monday in Israel, along with other businessmen, on suspicion of using fake contracts to launder money.

The scandal has been a gift to the SPÖ’s political competitors ahead of October’s parliamentary election. The far-right FPÖ called the scandal “unbelievable” and demanded Mr Kern’s resignation.

Pulled the plug

But the big winner is likely to be Austria’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP). It pulled the plug on the government one year early, claiming the grand coalition was dysfunctional, and is now leading polls with 32 per cent support – seven points ahead of the SPÖ.

ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz took to Facebook to attack his outgoing coalition partner.

“We don’t want to cast aspersions on others but . . . I warned many times about Silberstein’s problematic past and dirty campaigning methods,” wrote Mr Kurz.

However the 30-year-old ÖVP leader is facing criticism of his own for appointing to his election team on Thursday a former adviser to far-right leader Jörg Haider.

Josef Moser was the late Mr Haider’s long-term office manager and parliamentary party leader.

Now Austria’s comptroller and auditor general, he was praised by Mr Kurz on Thursday as a man who “acts responsibly with taxpayers’ money”.

In 1996 Mr Moser conceded handing over to the FPÖ a plastic bag containing €363,000 in cash from an Austrian industrialist. On Thursday Mr Moser said he was anxious to solve Austria’s “efficiency problem”.

ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz denied the appointment was an attempt to pull in far-right voters into his camp, but part of an effort to broaden the party’s appeal with new faces, including figures from outside politics.

Other appointments to his “Sebastian Kurz List” for the election include a mathematician, a former high-jumper and the organiser of the Vienna Opera ball.