Austrian chancellor who declared war on sleaze facing perjury charges

Sebastian Kurz has hit back at critics in a parliamentary row over alleged cronyism

Austria’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz has seen a slide in support for him personally and for his ruling Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). Photograph:  Peter Kneffel/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Austria’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz has seen a slide in support for him personally and for his ruling Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). Photograph: Peter Kneffel/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

 

It’s unlikely that perjury was on Sebastian Kurz’s to-do list when he soared into power four years ago, aged just 31, as Austria’s youngest-ever chancellor.

But this week Kurz informed his startled cabinet that he is facing perjury charges after alleged discrepancies between his recent testimony to a parliamentary investigation committee and private text messages.

The news is a significant dent to the reputation of the conservative politician who won the 2017 general election with a promise to take the sleaze out of Austrian politics. Weeks later, he took office with the notorious populist Heinz-Christian Strache and his far-right Freedom Party.

The coalition was short-lived. Even before the 2017 poll and the resulting alliance, Strache promised favours in exchange for donations from a woman claiming to be an oligarch’s niece. Their alcohol-fuelled conversation in an Ibiza villa was recorded on a hidden camera, and leaked footage ended Strache’s career  – and the first Kurz coalition – in 2019. After a turbulent few months, the chancellor survived a snap election and returned to power with the Greens.

But a parliamentary investigation launched into the sleaze of the so-called Ibiza Affair has now shifted its focus into the so-called Kurz Method of power, and how little it appears to differ from classic Austrian cronyism.

Text messages

With the help of energetic prosecutors, and a steady flow of media leaks, opposition politicians are poring over a telling trove of text messages not intended for public consumption.

One batch appear to show close contact between Kurz, his close ally and finance minister Gernot Blümel, and a mutual friend appointed to a job heading a state holding company.

Kurz told the parliamentary committee he had only tangential knowledge of the appointment and could not remember lobbying on his friend’s behalf.

A 58-page prosecutor report, seen by Austrian media, appears to show close involvement of both the chancellor and Blümel, who has had prosecutors raid his home and office.

Amid that investigation, Kurz has been struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic. After a strong start, his reputation was tarnished in Brussels last March after a damaging stand-off over vaccine distribution during which Kurz tried – and failed – to veto a new deal.

Deal with Russia

Smarting from that confrontation, and the resignation of his exhausted health minister, the chancellor announced a deal with Russia for one million Sputnik V vaccine doses. Six weeks on, with still no Sputnik vaccine in sight, Kurz has announced that Austria will wait to buy and administer the vaccine after approval from the European Medicines Agency.

On Wednesday an angry Kurz hit back at his critics on the evening news, saying that “every murderer in court is treated with more respect than a witness at the [parliamentary] committee of inquiry”.

Asked whether he would follow his own party’s ethics committee recommendation last year – that politicians facing charges should stand aside – he gave a qualified reply: “I know what I’ve done in my life and I know what I’ve not done... [and] I know I didn’t intentionally make a false witness statement.”

With the ongoing sleaze scandal, and pandemic unrest, the chancellor has seen a slide in support for him personally and for his ruling Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). But seasoned political advisers suggest it may be too soon to write off Kurz.

“This all damages the image he built up of a ‘new political style’,” said Thomas Hofer, a leading Austrian political consultant. “But his number one in polls is not in danger – as much because of the weak opposition [rather] than a strong ÖVP.”