Austria’s Kurz to form caretaker cabinet as he tries to survive confidence vote

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz was trying to put together a caretaker cabinet on Tuesday ahead of a confidence vote next week that could bring down his government.

Mr Kurz is determined to stay in office until new elections can be held in September following the collapse of his coalition with the far-Right Freedom Party (FPÖ) amid a corruption scandal.

But he could become the first ever Austrian chancellor to lose a confidence vote in parliament as his former Freedom Party allies turn on him.

He spent Tuesday afternoon in crisis talks with the Austrian president, Alexander Van der Bellen, after Freedom Party ministers resigned en masse from his government.

The two leaders emerged to announce that they will appoint non-partisan technocrats to fill the empty ministries as Mr Kurz attempts to soldier on.

Disgraced Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache (right) in a still from the video that led to his resignation

Austria was plunged in political crisis at the weekend when a video emerged of Heinz-Christian Strache, the vice-chancellor and Freedom Party leader, offering government contracts to a woman posing as a Russian oligarch in return for political and financial support.

Mr Strache resigned in disgrace. Mr Kurz announced he was not prepared to continue in coalition with the Freedom Party, and called for new elections.

But it was his decision to sack Herbert Kickl, the interior minister, that threw his plans into disarray.

Already smarting from the humiliation of Mr Strache’s downfall, Mr Kickl’s FPÖ colleagues refused to accept his dismissal and resigned in protest.

Mr Kurz now faces an uphill challenge trying to form a minority caretaker government. His conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) alone has only 62 seats out of 183 in parliament.

“The emphasis is on a transitional government,” President Van der Bellen told a press conference on Tuesday, emphasising that the caretaker administration would be expected not to implement major new legislation or government spending.

But first Mr Kurz must negotiate a no confidence motion tabled by the small opposition Now Party.

“Increasingly we get the impression that this failure is no accident. With him it seems it’s all about his own power,” Peter Pilz of the Now Party said.

“In the current situation, the only stable  government is an independent group of experts, not a campaigning cabinet led by Kurz.”

Mr Kurz’s immediate fate will depend on how the other two major parties vote. The main opposition Social Democrats (SPÖ) have yet to declare their hand, while the Freedom Party yesterday backed away from earlier threats to vote against the government.

Both parties will be keen to deny Mr Kurz the opportunity to enter September’s elections as an incumbent chancellor. But both will also be wary of being seen by voters to exploit the situation for their own benefit.

Mr Kurz’s decision to fire Mr Kickl as interior minister was a clear sign his patience with the Freedom Party was already wearing thin before the corruption scandal broke.

Mr Kickl was not personally implicated in the video, but he had been a headache for Mr Kurz for some time. Earlier this year the chancellor moved to take control of the intelligence services away from the interior ministry after European allies including the UK blocked intelligence sharing.

While the reason for the boycott was not disclosed, it was believed to centre on close links between the Freedom Party and Russia, and a police raid Mr Kickl authorised against the domestic intelligence service last year.

Mr Kurz and President Van der Bellen face the press in ViennaCredit:
Michael Gruber/AP

Meanwhile Johann Gudenus, a senior Freedom Party politician who resigned from the party at the weekend after being caught in the corruption video alongside Mr Strache, issued a strange statement alleging he may have been drugged.

"I was a willing and compliant victim, who some one perhaps made docile with knock-out drops or some other drug," Mr Gudenus said, claiming he has significant memory gaps.

Five Freedom Party ministers resigned from the government on Monday, but it emerged on Tuesday that a sixth intends to stay on.

Karin Kneissl said she will remain foreign minister as she is not a Freedom Party member. Best known to the outside world for inviting Vladimir Putin to her wedding as guest of honour last year, Ms Kneissl was nominated to the post by the Freedom Party but is officially independent.

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