Austria’s Kurz seeks to oust far-right interior minister before snap vote

VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria’s two ruling parties faced off on Monday over whether their lame-duck government could even limp along until a snap election, with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives demanding the far-right interior minister’s head.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz addresses the media in Vienna, Austria, May 18, 2019. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Kurz called off his coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) on Saturday after longtime FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache was caught in an apparent sting operation offering to fix state contracts and discussing how to work around party financing laws.

Strache stepped down as Austrian vice chancellor on Saturday, a day after footage of the almost two-year-old sting was published by German media. Who was behind it remains unclear. A snap election is expected to be called for September.

But overnight a new fight emerged over whether the two sides could even work together on an interim basis until the election – heightening the potential disarray just days before Austria votes for its lawmakers for the European Parliament.

“I expect that the chancellor will suggest to the president that the interior minister be dismissed from the government,” European affairs minister Gernot Bluemel, a close ally of Kurz’s, told national broadcaster ORF on Sunday night.

Bluemel said that since Interior Minister Herbert Kickl was FPO chairman at the time of the sting, he should not be allowed to remain in a ministerial job in which he would oversee the investigation into what happened and whether there was any wrongdoing.

Strache has described the sting, which involved a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch, as a “targeted political assassination” and said it never led to any money changing hands. He insisted the only crime that took place was illegally videotaping a private dinner party.

FPO officials have said their party’s ministers would step down in unison if Kickl, a party hardliner but also one of its best-known figures, was forced out.

“That is something I could not accept,” new FPO leader Norbert Hofer said on Facebook on Sunday, adding that he already refused an earlier offer from Kurz to keep their coalition going without Kickl. Bluemel said that version of events was “absurd”.

Kickl has been the most controversial minister in this government, not least because during his tenure a police raid was carried out in the offices of the country’s main intelligence service, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT), which he oversees.

Opposition politicians have accused Kickl of trying to arrange a purge of the BVT’s ranks. Until the last election, the Interior Ministry had been run by Kurz’s party for almost two decades.

Kickl and Hofer are due to hold a news conference at 10:30 a.m. (0830 GMT).

Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Alison Williams

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