Austria’s Government Teeters as Sebastian Kurz Faces Corruption Probe

BERLIN — The government of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria teetered near collapse on Friday after federal prosecutors opened a criminal investigation against him this week on suspicion of using government funds to pay for favorable opinion polls and news articles.

Mr. Kurz, who has been feted as the young face of European conservatism, vigorously denied the charges. But he is now facing calls to step aside as three opposition parties plan to introduce a vote of no-confidence against him at a special parliamentary session next week.

President Alexander Van der Bellen addressed the nation on Friday evening, reassuring Austrians that while the latest crisisthreatened the government, the country’s democratic institutions remained intact and functional.

“We have a crisis of government, not a crisis of state,” Mr. Van der Bellen said. “Our democracy is prepared for all possible situations, including this one.”

The future of Austria’s government will now depend on the left-leaning Greens, the junior coalition partners, who were always uncomfortable political bedfellows with Mr. Kurz and who had campaigned on a platform of “clean politics.”

Prominent voices in the Greens party now see that position and their support for the government as untenable under a chancellor who is suspected of using funds from the finance ministry to pay for positive media coverage.

They are now calling for another member of his People’s Party to take over the chancellorship. Short of that, they could pull out of the ruling coalition and try to form a new government with a combination of smaller opposition parties, though they lack the numbers in Parliament. If all fails, the country could face new elections.

“Such a person is no longer capable of performing his duties, and of course the People’s Party has a responsibility here to nominate someone who is beyond reproach to lead this government,” Sigi Maurer, the Greens’ leader in Parliament, said of Mr. Kurz.

Mr. Kurz,35, says he is determined to hang on. He rose to prominence after seizing control of the conservative People’s Party and refashioned it by co-opting many of the messages of the far right at a time when anti-immigrant populism was surging in Europe.

After an intense, social media-savvy campaign focused largely on patriotic themes and a hard line against migration, Mr. Kurzbecame Austria’s youngest chancellor after elections in 2017, when he forged a government that included the far-right Freedom Party.

Less than two years later that government collapsed after the far right was itself engulfed in scandal when a video emerged showing the Freedom Party’s then leader promising government contracts in exchange for financial support from a woman claiming to be a wealthy Russian.

In new elections in 2019 Mr. Kurz came out on top once again, but pivoted to form a government with the left-leaning Greens, demonstrating his skill as a political shape shifter.

Now it is Mr. Kurz who is suspected of the ethical breach that may implode his latest government.

Austria’s federal prosecutor said on Wednesday it had launched a criminal investigation against Mr. Kurz and nine others on suspicion of misusing government funds to pay for polls and articles in the news media that cast him in a favorable light in the months leading up to and just after his election to the chancellery.

Mr. Kurz before a meeting with Austria’s president, Alexander van der Bellen, on Thursday in Vienna.Credit…Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images

“Between the years 2016 and at least 2018, budgetary funds of the Federal Ministry of Finance were used to finance surveys conducted by a polling company in the interest of a political party and its top official that were exclusively motivated by party politics, and sometimes manipulated,” the prosecutor’s office said.

The results of the polls were then published in media belonging to the Österreich Media Group, “without being declared as an advertisement,” the prosecutors said. In exchange for the favorable coverage, prosecutors said they suspected that “payments were made to the media conglomerate.”

The chancellor denied it. “I know what I did and I know that the accusations are false,” Mr. Kurz told reporters in Vienna on Thursday, where he met with Mr. Van der Bellen.

“Just as the independent judiciary is an important pillar of our democracy, so is the presumption of innocence essential to our rule of law,” Mr. Kurz said. “At least, that has been the case until now.”

Mr. Kurz and the leaders of his conservative party have so far rejected calls for him to step aside, circling the wagons instead.

“The leaders of the People’s Party today made very clear that they only want to stay in this government under the leadership of Sebastian Kurz,” Elisabeth Köstinger, a member of the party and minister for tourism in Mr. Kurz’s government, told reporters.

Mr. Kurz after parliamentary elections in 2017, when he joined the far right in government. Credit…Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Since taking over leadership of the People’s Party, Mr. Kurz has been its unchallenged leader, said Alexandra Siegl, a political analyst with Peter Hajek Public Opinion Strategies in Vienna.

“You could say that the People’s Party in the past few years has been Sebastian Kurz,”she said. “There is no one else in the party who is as well known across the country and there is no obvious successor.”

But there is also no easy path for his opponents to take power. The three opposition parties lack the majority needed for their no-confidence vote to succeed, unless several lawmakers from the Greens join them in support.

On Thursday the leaders of the Greens met with their counterparts from the Socialists, the largest opposition party in Parliament, to try to find a solution.

Even if the two were to join forces with the smaller, liberal Neos party, they would still lack a majority and could only survive by securing the support of the far-right Freedom Party, itself an awkward and potentially unstable proposition.

“It is imperative that Mr. Kurz step down,” the Freedom Party’s current leader, Herbert Kickl, told reporters on Friday. He gave no indication whether his party would be willing to support a three-way minority government led by the Socialists.

Failing that, Austria could face new elections — territory where Mr. Kurz has shown twice he knows how to perform. The Greens, on the other hand, have seen their support dwindle since 2019 and such a move could jeopardize two of their signature bills, which have been worked out with the government, but not yet passed into law.

The Chancellery in Vienna on Wednesday.Credit…Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images

But the ongoing criminal investigation into Mr. Kurz , which will determine whether there is sufficient evidence to press charges, may make it impossible for the Greens not to bolt.

On Friday, the prosecutors’ office made available more documents showing the text message exchanges between Mr. Kurz and his advisers, which included disparaging remarks about the previous conservative party leader and insults about members of the government in which he once served as foreign minister and calls to “stir up” a region against then Chancellor Christian Kern.

“This hardens the suspicions against him,” Ms. Siegl said. Nevertheless, it may not be enough to shatter Mr. Kurz’s popularity among Austrians, especially a core group of supporters whocontinue to support his hard line on migration, she said.

“They just push it to the side and say that every politician has something to hide, if you look hard enough,” she said. “No one likes to admit that they have been taken for a ride.”

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