Austria’s Kurz forced to step down despite European elections win
A surge in support for Austria’s mainstream conservative party in the European Parliament elections failed to save the chancellorship of Sebastian Kurz, who now faces a battle to regain power in elections in the fall.
On Monday afternoon, after three hours of increasingly rancorous debate — unprecedented in Austria’s second republic — the country’s largest opposition parties, the Social Democrats and the far-right Freedom party, backed a no-confidence vote against Mr Kurz, pushing the 32-year-old chancellor out from office.
Mr Kurz had already said on Sunday that he expected to lose this vote in the wake of the scandal that has entangled the Freedom party, his coalition partner, though that was before the scale of his party’s victory in the European elections became clear.
President Alexander Van der Bellen is now expected to nominate a place holder cabinet of technocrats, to govern until national elections are held in September.
The no-confidence motion brings a dramatic 10 days in Austrian politics to a close. Since 1945, 185 votes of no confidence have been tabled against governments. Mr Kurz is the first chancellor to lose one.
Mr Kurz had attempted to cling to power with a minority government after breaking a coalition with the far-right Freedom party this month. The Freedom party’s leader, and Austria’s then vice-chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, was forced to resign on May 18 after a video emerged showing him offering government contracts in an attempt to solicit heavyweight political support from Russia.
The video revelations, known in Austria as the “Ibiza affair”, plunged the country into political crisis on the eve of the European elections.
Mr Kurz and the People’s party emerged on Sunday evening as the biggest winners of the polls, with support surging 8.5 percentage points to its highest ever level, 35 per cent, in a result widely seen as huge personal mandate for the chancellor.
The result, however, had little effect on Austria’s parliamentary arithmetic. The country’s Social Democrats announced on Monday morning that they would press ahead with the no-confidence motion they tabled last week. The party’s leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, accused Mr Kurz of pursuing an “unbridled, shameless grip on power, but the power in our country comes from the people.”
Mr Kurz’s erstwhile coalition partners were even less sparing. Herbert Kickl, who Mr Kurz forced out last week as minister of the interior, received powerful applause from colleagues as he denounced the chancellor as “disgusting” on the floor of Austria’s elegant white-and-gold parliament.
Stoical at first, Mr Kurz appeared increasingly rattled as lawmakers from opposition parties took the podium to denounce his government — frequently attacking him in personal terms.
Mr Kurz was at pains to appear as statesmanlike as possible. In his speech, in which he accepted the no-confidence vote passing as a foregone conclusion, he said the People’s party would “put no obstacles in the way of the next government, and [we] will support them in any way necessary”.