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New polls for Austria after government falls

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Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen speaks at a press conference in Vienna May 18, 2019. Xinhua

VIENNA (AFP) – Austria’s president on Sunday called for fresh elections in September after a corruption scandal embroiling the far-right brought down the coalition government in spectacular fashion.

Just days before key EU elections, Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was forced to resign in disgrace Saturday following explosive revelations from a hidden camera sting.

Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz – whose 18-month coalition with Strache’s far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) had been held up as a model by many on the European right – reacted by pulling the plug on their union.

“My preference is for early elections in September, if possible the beginning of September,” President Alexander Van der Bellen told journalists on Sunday after meeting Kurz.

Van der Bellen will hold further talks with other party leaders to fix a date, setting the scene for months of campaigning.

The dramatic developments followed the publication by two German newspapers on Friday of footage from a sophisticated hidden-camera sting months before Austria’s last parliamentary elections in 2017.

In the recordings – of unknown provenance – Strache is seen talking to a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.

The pair discuss how she could gain control of the country’s largest-circulation tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung, and install editorial staff who would help the FPOe’s 2017 election campaign.

In return, Strache held out the possibility of awarding public contracts.

Elsewhere in the footage, he discusses remodelling Austria’s media landscape to more closely resemble that of Viktor Orban’s Hungary, and appears to hint at ways political donations could escape legal scrutiny.

Kurz said Saturday the latest revelations were the final straw after a string of FPOe-related scandals dogging the government.

“Enough is enough,” he told a press conference in Vienna on Saturday, estimated to have been watched by more than two million people – nearly a quarter of the country’s population.

Strache for his part admitted in his emotional resignation statement that he had been “stupid” and “irresponsible”, but also sought to portray himself as the victim of a “targeted political attack”.

Controversial FPOe Interior Minister Herbert Kickl posted a defiant statement on Facebook Sunday blaming Kurz for the coalition’s collapse.

“We are ready for this confrontation,” Kickl said.

The opposition has demanded that Kickl and all other FPOe ministers be fired immediately but neither Van der Bellen nor Kurz commented on whether they would be allowed to stay, nor on who would replace the vice-chancellor.

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