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Knives out among Austria's far-right after poll rout

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Vienna (AFP)

Leaders of Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) gather Tuesday in Vienna as they reel from heavy losses in Sunday's elections and corruption scandals hanging over the party intensify.

The man at the centre of those scandals, its former leader Heinz-Christian Strache, has invited journalists to a "personal statement" on Tuesday morning as speculation mounts that he will be suspended or even expelled from the party.

Voters delivered a stinging rebuke to the FPOe, which plunged 10 points to 16 percent in the aftermath of May's so-called "Ibiza-gate" affair.

That scandal brought down Strache and saw the FPOe's government with the centre-right People's Party (OeVP) collapse.

Since the result on Sunday evening, one grim-faced FPOe politician after another has toured the TV studios to make clear that the party needs a spell in opposition to put its house in order -- a process that may well mean the knives are out for Strache.

On Monday evening the leader of the party in Upper Austria province, Manfred Haimbuchner, told Austrian media that he expected Strache to be suspended.

On Tuesday leaders of the Vienna branch of the party are expected to discuss yet another scandal which broke in the days leading up to the election, this time involving Strache's use of party money.

Prosecutors confirmed Thursday they were investigating Strache's expenses and had questioned his former bodyguard and his former office manager "on the suspicion... of submitting fake receipts" costing the party more than 5,000 euros ($5,500).

The FPOe's national executive will also meet on Tuesday in the presence of new leader Norbert Hofer to discuss how to "reconstruct" the party.

- Rising recriminations -

In the immediate aftermath of "Ibiza-gate", the party closed ranks around Strache, who was filmed appearing to offer public contracts to a woman he believed was a Russian oligarch's niece in return for campaign help.

Strache himself initially contritely resigned his posts but soon turned to loudly protesting his innocence and bemoaning a conspiracy against him.

In the run-up to May's European elections, a successful social media campaign launched by party supporters encouraged a "preference vote" for Strache in order to demonstrate his continuing support among the party's base.

While he eventually turned that seat down, the Strache family name may not disappear from the corridors of power entirely as his wife Philippa is still in the running for one of the FPOe's seats in parliament.

However, in recent days the recriminations against him have been rising within the party.

Strache's erstwhile colleague in government, FPOe ex-Defence Minister Mario Kunasek, said that if the expenses allegations against Strache "proved to be true, I don't see any other option" but to expel him, "however painful it is".

Some comments aimed at Strache online from people claiming to be FPOe voters have been even less forgiving.

"Keep quiet for once! The quicker the party expels you the better for its future," reads one.

- Ghost of Haider -

In a country of 8.8 million people, Strache's Facebook page has almost 800,000 fans and some have speculated that he may be tempted to see if his personal following is enough to start his own party.

In 2020 there are key municipal elections in Vienna, and before the current turmoil there were rumours that Strache was preparing a run for mayor.

Watchers of Austrian politics would be forgiven for feeling a bout of deja-vu coming on.

In the early 2000s, a previous OeVP-FPOe government also collapsed amid infighting, with the far-right's charismatic Joerg Haider eventually setting up his own rival movement.

Watching the rows on the far-right with some trepidation will be the winner of Sunday's election, OeVP leader Sebastian Kurz.

He had made it clear that the FPOe was one of his preferred coalition partners but this option may be off the table for the foreseeable future.

"In future Kurz will have to take into account the instability in the FPOe which will make it very difficult for him to fulfil his ambition to govern in a stable way over the next five years," political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP.

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