BERLIN: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Saturday he would step down in a bid to ease a government crisis triggered by prosecutors’ announcement that he is the target of a corruption investigation.
Kurz, 35, said he has proposed to the Austrian president that Foreign Minister Alexander Schellenberg become chancellor. But Kurz himself would remain in a key political position: he said he would head the parliamentary group of his conservative Austrian People’s Party.
Kurz’s party had closed ranks behind him after prosecutors announced Wednesday that the offices of the chancellor and his party were searched. But her junior coalition partner, the Greens, said on Friday that Kurz could not remain as chancellor and demanded that his party nominate an “untraceable person” to replace him. The coalition government assumed office in January 2020.
The Greens’ leader, Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler, hailed Kurz’s decision as “a right and important step”.
“It means we can continue our work in government,” he said.
Kurz and his close associates are accused of trying to secure their rise to the leadership of their party and country with the help of public money-funded media manipulation and friendly reports. Kurz, who became leader and then chancellor of the People’s Party in 2017, denies wrongdoing.
The Greens said the investigation produced a “disastrous” effect. In a separate case, anti-corruption officials placed Kurz under investigation on suspicion of making false statements to a parliamentary commission in May, a charge they also denied.
Opposition leaders had called for Kurz to go and planned to move a no-confidence motion against him in parliament on Tuesday.
“We are still in a very sensitive phase in Austria – the pandemic is not over yet and the economic recovery has just begun,” while talks were held on reforming the country’s tax system to help curb greenhouse gas emissions. but has not yet been implemented, Kurz said.
“Now we need stable conditions,” he told reporters in Vienna. “Therefore, in order to resolve the impasse, I want to create a way to prevent chaos and ensure stability.”
On Saturday, he insisted again that the allegations against him are “false and I will be able to clarify this – I am deeply convinced of that.”
Kurz said of the Greens’ demand for his replacement: “Many people tell me that this is unfair and … you can imagine that I would be personally grateful too if the presumption of innocence in our country was really applies to all.”
He insisted that the allegations against him were being “mixed up” with old text messages that have surfaced in recent days. “Some of those messages are that I certainly won’t dress the same way again, but I’m just a person with feelings and flaws,” he said.
Kurz would continue to be the leader of his own parliamentary party as well as the leadership of his party.
He responded to a demand for a spotless new leader with 52-year-old Schalenberg. Although loyal to Kurz, Schellenberg has a background in diplomacy rather than party politics.
Schalenberg already served as foreign minister in a non-partisan interim government that pushed the EU nation to 8.9 million people for several months after the first coalition broke with Kurz’s far-right Freedom Party in 2019.
Austria’s next regular parliamentary election is to be held in 2024.