Austrian chancellor to step down hours after party's former leader quits politics

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Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg is stepping down to make way for whoever takes over as leader of his conservative party, he said on Thursday, just hours after party strongman Sebastian Kurz said he was leaving politics altogether.

Sebastian Kurz stunned Austria and left a power vacuum in his People’s Party (OVP) with his announcment. He had quit as chancellor in October at the behest of his coalition partner, the Greens, after prosecutors opened a corruption inquiry, though he remained party head and a lawmaker.

Schallenberg, a career diplomat, has been in the job for less than two months since taking over from Kurz.

Several Austrian media have reported that Interior Minister Karl Nehammer, an enforcer of Kurz’s hard line on immigration, is most likely to become party leader and chancellor when the OVP leadership meets on Friday to pick Kurz’s successor.

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“I firmly believe that both positions — head of government and leader of the Austrian party with the most votes — should soon once again be held by the same person,” Schallenberg said in a statement, adding that he did not want to be party leader.

“I am therefore making my post as chancellor available as soon as the relevant course has been set within the party.”

Schallenberg is widely seen as an accidental chancellor with no power base of his own and he has been dogged by allegations that he is little more than Kurz’s puppet keeping the seat warm while his political master seeks to clear his own name.

Kurz, 35, is one of 10 people suspected of varying degrees of breach of trust, corruption and bribery in a case in which prosecutors allege public funds were used to secretly commission manipulated polling that was published with a view to helping Kurz become party leader and then chancellor in 2017.

Kurz denies wrongdoing.

NO SAINT

Kurz took his party by surprise on Thursday morning by announcing he was leaving politics, vacating both his party leader’s post and his seat in parliament.

He has been the dominant and most polarizing figure of Austrian politics since 2017 when he became OVP leader and then chancellor, winning a parliamentary election and forming a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

“I am neither a saint nor a criminal,” Kurz said in a statement to the media.

He said he planned to spend more time with his girlfriend and their newborn son.

Kurz said he had felt “hunted” because of hefty criticism during his time as chancellor. He has most recently come under fire for not doing more to prevent the latest wave of COVID-19 infections, which prompted the current national lockdown. He admitted to making mistakes.

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He led his party in two parliamentary elections in 2017 and 2019, becoming chancellor after both. But his time in government was mired in scandals including the graft investigation and his dismissal by parliament in 2019 after a video sting ensnared the then-leader of the FPO and their coalition collapsed.

His OVP is one of the main traditional parties in Austria but under Kurz it has largely been built around him, leaving no obvious choice to succeed him as its strongman. Kurz did not endorse anyone to succeed him.

Most polls showed the OVP had a lead of at least 10 points over its nearest rival, the opposition Social Democrats, until Kurz was placed under investigation in October. Polls now show the two parties neck and neck.

At the same time, a snap elections is unlikely as the latest polling suggest both the OVP and the Greens would likely lose seats. This parliament is due to last until autumn 2023.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy Editing by Alison Williams, Mark Heinrich and Angus MacSwan)

© 2021 The Canadian Press

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