Far-right ministers ready to quit Austria govt after scandal

Vienna (AFP) –


Austrian far-right ministers on Monday were ready to quit their posts, the party chief said, after the country's coalition government collapsed over a corruption scandal days before European elections.

Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has called for fresh elections after a hidden-camera sting forced his far-right deputy to resign, bringing an end to a coalition many on the European right held up as a model.

With Kurz scrambling to regain control over the weekend, saying he can no longer tolerate the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) scandals, media speculation is growing he will also oust far-right Interior Minister Herbert Kickl.

The FPOe closed ranks behind Kickl, threatening to quit their cabinet posts, which besides the interior ministry include the foreign, defence, transport and social affairs ministries.

"We will give up our government offices if Interior Minister Herbert Kickl is forced out," Norbert Hofer, who is infrastructure minister and took over the FPOe leadership on Sunday, told a press conference.

"I feel very sorry that such a great government project ends so soon... I think this government was very popular," he said, adding that Kickl had done "nothing wrong".

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen on Sunday suggested elections be held in early September with a date to be fixed after further talks with other parties.

- Fake Russian backer -

Heinz-Christian Strache stepped down as vice-chancellor and FPOe leader after recordings published by German media Friday showed him offering government contracts in return for campaign help to a fake Russian backer in a villa on the resort island of Ibiza.

Elsewhere in the footage, Strache appears to hint at ways political donations could escape legal scrutiny.

Kickl was FPOe secretary general at the time when any political donations would have been made. Strache on Saturday denied the party had received illegal funds.

"It is clear Herbert Kickl cannot investigate himself," Kurz was quoted by the Kurier newspaper on Monday.

He has said the recordings were the final straw in a string of FPOe-related scandals.

The most damaging recent controversy linked to interior minister Kickl was last year when he ordered raids on the country's own domestic intelligence agency BVT.

Numerous documents were seized, raising fears among Austria's Western partners about the possibility of leaks to Moscow.

The FPOe has a cooperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin's United Russia party.

- Thousands demonstrate -

Over the weekend thousands of people demonstrated in Vienna against the government at an impromptu gathering in front of the chancelery on Saturday, as well as at a previously planned pro-EU rally on Sunday.

In an emotional resignation statement Saturday, Strache said he had been "stupid" and "irresponsible" but was the victim of a "targeted political attack".

In the recordings -- of unknown origin -- Strache and a colleague from his party, who has also resigned, are seen talking to a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.

They 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.

The Kremlin on Monday denied any involvement in the sting operation.

The scandal has already made waves outside of Austria.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the weekend reacted to the scandal by warning of the dangers of far-right politicians "for sale", who wanted to "destroy the Europe of our values".

The scandal may also dent the prospects of the far-right populist alliance marshalled by Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, in which the FPOe plays a key part.