By Francois Murphy
VIENNA (Reuters) – Conservative Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has faced down the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) and now heads a caretaker cabinet with no FPO members after a secretly filmed video set off a scandal that scuppered their coalition.
But to stay in power until an autumn snap election, and use that position to present himself as a victim of the political crisis rather than a midwife to it, he must survive a no-confidence vote, likely to be put forward when parliament meets on Monday, and held by Wednesday.
Defeat could harm his chances in the election, which will most likely be held in September. It could also shift some blame for the scandal and its fallout away from the FPO, which has been one of the most successful anti-immigrant nationalist parties in Europe.
President Alexander Van der Bellen, who has the power to dismiss the government, has said an orderly transition to the election is vital.
Here is how this political crisis could pan out:
Kurz needs a simple majority to win the confidence vote, as long as at least 92 of the 183 members of parliament are present.
But as his own People’s Party (OVP), the biggest faction, only controls a third of the seats, he will need support – or at least abstentions – from either the FPO or the Social Democrats (SPO) – each of which controls just over a quarter of the seats.
If the vote of no confidence is proposed on Monday, it may be put off for no more than two days if a fifth of members of parliament request it – something that Kurz could ensure.
Much of the Freedom Party is furious at Kurz for ending their coalition and then persuading Van der Bellen to sack FPO Interior Minister Herbert Kickl. There is a strong chance it will vote against Kurz.
That means the SPO is likely to determine the outcome. They are torn between voting against Kurz for his part in bringing the FPO to power and governing with them for 17 months on the one hand, and heeding the president’s call for stability on the other.
The SPO has said Kurz failed to consult it before filling departing FPO ministers’ posts with civil servants.
Kurz also collapsed the previous government, a coalition led by the SPO, in 2017. They accused each other of using underhand tactics and their relations have been sour ever since.
To secure SPO backing, Kurz is likely to have to make concessions. The SPO’s deputy leader has urged him to take steps such as increasing transparency on large party donations, which is aimed at Kurz’s party, or bolster media freedom, which the FPO has been accused of trying to undermine.
Both FPO and SPO have said they will wait until Monday to decide how to vote.
If Kurz loses, Van der Bellen will have to nominate a new chancellor to put together a government. Given the current political situation, that person is likely to be an elder statesman.
One option mentioned in Austrian media is Van der Bellen’s popular predecessor, 80-year-old Heinz Fischer, who retired after the maximum two terms. Another is the retired head of the Constitutional Court, who is 71.
SPO leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner has said that rather than replacing the departing FPO ministers with technocrats, Kurz should have stepped down to make way for an entirely non-partisan interim government. If Kurz loses, that is the most likely outcome.
EU ELECTION – TRUMPCARD?
The European Parliament election will be held in Austria on Sunday, the day before parliament meets, and Kurz hopes to use it to strengthen his hand.
He has said the election is a chance to set Austria’s future course and urged his party’s supporters to turn out to vote, saying it would help him “very personally”.
Since a video sting felled far-right vice chancellor and FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache last weekend, the little polling that has been done suggests Kurz’s OVP has gained support. Kurz would hope to use that as leverage and argue that he has popular backing to stay in office.
(Editing by Kevin Liffey)