Shock as ex-chancellor Sebastian Kurz quits Austrian politics

Move leaves power vacuum in party and comes amid investigation for corruption

Austrian former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has announced his retirement from politics. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

Austrian former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has announced his retirement from politics. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

 

After a decade in the public eye, and three years as Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz has withdrawn from public life after his mercurial career collapsed under corruption allegations.

Mr Kurz became the world’s youngest democratically elected head of government in 2017, aged just 31, after promising to take the sleaze out of Austrian politics.

Last October, facing corruption allegations, which he denies, Mr Kurz stood down as chancellor. He switched to be parliamentary party head of his ruling centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), from which he will stand down on Friday.

Mr Kurz’s successor as chancellor, former foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg, announced his departure on Thursday, too, after 47 days in office. With the ÖVP facing a power vacuum, interior minister Alexander Schallenberg is expected to be sworn in on Friday – the sixth such ceremony in five years.

The ÖVP and its Green coalition partner insist their alliance – in office since January – will survive. With a large-scale government reshuffle likely, opposition parties have demanded fresh elections to allow voters reorder Austria’s political landscape

The end of Mr Kurz’s public career concludes one of modern Europe’s most unusual political chapters.

At 25 he became Austria’s state secretary for integration and caused a sensation on the diplomatic parquet as Austria’s youngest-ever foreign minister. In this role, prosecutors believe Mr Kurz super-charged his campaign for the chancellery with skewed opinion polls.

Poll scandal

In 2017 he triggered fresh elections and leveraged his personal social media popularity to boost his failing party. After reconfiguring the party in his image, he took the leadership but in return demanded – and secured – total loyalty of regional leaders and party members.

Mr Kurz took office promising to clean up Austrian politics, but his coalition with the far-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) collapsed two years later after the FPÖ leader was captured in a corruption sting.

An investigation into that scandal has pivoted in the last year towards Mr Kurz and his finance minister, Gernot Blümel. A cache of text messages, secured by prosecutors and leaked to the media, appears to show the two working to secure a mutual friend a job heading a state holding company – the kind of political cronyism Mr Kurz vowed to end.

In May Austrian prosecutors began a formal investigation into Mr Kurz over a suspicion that, as foreign minister, he and allies used €1 million in public money to buy favourable poll coverage in a tabloid newspaper.

Once in office, the newspaper was allegedly rewarded with lucrative public advertising. After October raids on the chancellery and ÖVP party headquarters, Mr Kurz resigned.

On Thursday, claiming he felt “hounded” by investigators and the media, Mr Kurz said he looked forward to clearing his name in court.

Concluding his final press conference on Thursday, to collect his girlfriend and son, Konstantin, from hospital, Mr Kurz said that, for now, he plans to focus on his family.