Austrian chancellor loses no-confidence showdown

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Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Monday became the first chancellor in the country's post-war history to be removed from office by a no-confidence vote over a corruption scandal that had already brought down his coalition with the far-right. The motion against Kurz and his cabinet is the latest fallout from the so-called "Ibiza-gate" scandal, which saw far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) leader and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resign from both posts after he was caught appearing to offer public contracts in return for campaign help from a fake Russian backer. The video led to Kurz ending his coalition with the FPOe and calling early elections for later this year. But that did not stop opposition parties tabling the no-confidence motion and insisting that the 32-year-old leader must also take responsibility for the scandal. Despite Monday's vote, Kurz will take comfort in a big win for his conservative People's Party (OeVP) in Sunday's European elections, which is projected to gain 34.9 percent of the vote and two extra European parliament seats. Addressing cheering party supporters on Monday evening in buoyant mood, Kurz denounced what he called the "new coalition" of the FPOe and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe), who had joined forces in parliament out of "hatred" for the OeVP and voted for the motion. Presenting himself as a figure of stability in Austria's current turmoil, Kurz said: "I'm still here, I'm standing for you." "We can be sure that they will attack us... but they can't stop the change that we are putting in motion," he added, referring to the upcoming election campaign. He also pledged his support for the technocratic government now expected to be appointed by President Alexander Van der Bellen. Van der Bellen later appointed Finance Minister Hartwig Loeger to carry out the government's duties in the meantime. - 'Unprecedented power grab' - The no-confidence vote against Kurz and his government took place in a special sitting of parliament with more than half of MPs withdrawing their support, making him Austria's shortest-serving chancellor. Submitting the motion against Kurz, the head of the SPOe, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, accused him of an unprecedented "uncurbed and shameless power grab". The scandal erupted following the publication on May 17 of hidden-camera recordings filmed in a luxury villa on the holiday island of Ibiza a few months before Austria's last parliamentary elections in 2017. Amid a welter of embarrassing comments, Strache also appeared to allude to a scheme channelling political donations through FPOe-linked foundations in order to avoid legal scrutiny. After Strache's resignation, Kurz also sacked FPOe interior minister Herbert Kickl, arguing he could not oversee any possible investigation into his own party's wrongdoing. FPOe ministers responded by walking out of the government en masse, leading to Kurz appointing experts to take their place in an interim government. - Far-right comeback? - The FPOe, meanwhile, seemed to have suffered a setback in Sunday's European parliamentary elections as a result of "Ibiza-gate", falling from 19.7 percent to 17.2 percent and losing one of their four MEPs. However, the FPOe leadership insists that the share of votes shows they have a solid electoral base and that they can bounce back in time for the parliamentary elections. When he first became chancellor in late 2017, Kurz was widely hailed on the European right as someone who could successfully tap into surging anti-immigration sentiment while projecting a polished demeanour. But even before the current crisis, Kurz found himself constantly having to bat away criticism for alleged extremist sympathies among FPOe members. The opposition has placed the blame for the current debacle squarely at the feet of Kurz himself for having invited the far-right into government in the first place, saying he had ample warning of the unsuitability of the FPOe for government. Kurz has trod a fine line in his statements since the crisis broke, admitting he found the FPOe's antics "hard to swallow" but insisting he had no other choice. "There was no other party which was ready to form a coalition with us," he told journalists on Thursday, when asked whether he regretted the coalition.

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