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Austria's far-right Vice Chancellor resigns over video scandal

Attila Kisbenedek, AFP | In this file photo taken on May 6, 2019 Austria's Vice-Chancellor and chairman of the Freedom Party FPOe Heinz-Christian Strache gives a press conference in Budapest.

Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party said on Saturday he was stepping down and would be replaced by Transport Minister Norbert Hofer after an embarrassing video of him was published by German media.

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Announcing his resignation at a press conference, Strache said that he was illegally set up in a “political assassination", but added that his behavior in the video was “stupid and a mistake".

Senior figures in the Austrian government – a coalition of Sebastian Kurz’s conservatives and Strache’s far-right Freedom Party – had held a crisis meeting on Friday night.

The video was reported on Friday evening by two of Germany’s leading newspapers – weekly Der Spiegel and newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung – purportedly showing a meeting in Ibiza between Strache, another party official and a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.

The newspaper reports also said the video appeared to be a sting operation.

Inflated construction contracts

The footage, recorded in July 2017 – months before the election that brought this government to power – showed Strache talking to the woman.

In it, he appeared to offer to direct inflated construction contracts to a company in exchange for support for his party, though he also said he wanted everything to be done legally.

Strache has headed the party since 2005, bringing it back to mainstream electoral success not seen since it was led by the charismatic Joerg Haider. It secured 26 percent of the vote in 2017’s parliamentary election.

The Freedom Party (FPO) co-chairman, Christian Hafenecker, said the party’s lawyers were evaluating the material.

Neither Strache nor the FPO ever received or granted any benefits from the persons concerned, Hafenecker said in a statement.

“Since the video was obviously recorded illegally, we are also preparing appropriate legal steps.”

Vienna prosecutors said they would study the reports and decide whether there was sufficient cause to open an investigation, a spokeswoman for the prosecutors said.

“The FPO is finished,” ran the headline in the tabloid Kronen Zeitung, which featured in the video since the woman said the oligarch wanted to buy a stake.

It remains unclear who was behind the recording.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)

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