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ELECTION

Austria set for early elections on September 29

The date for early elections triggered by the so-called "Ibiza-gate" scandal which brought down Austria's government has been fixed for September 29, following a decision by a parliamentary commission Tuesday.

Austria set for early elections on September 29
Sebastian Kurz leaves the parliament after he lost a confidence vote on May 27th. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP
The snap poll was prompted by the decision of centre-right Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to end his coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) after a video emerged last month of FPOe leader Heinz-Christian Strache appearing to offer public contracts in return for campaign help from a fake Russian backer.
   
While Kurz and President Alexander Van der Bellen favoured a date in early September for the elections, the FPOe and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPOe) pushed for the September 29 date.
   
Together the FPOe and SPOe have a majority in parliament, which will now have to formally confirm the date.
 
Kurz comeback?
 
Both parties lost vote share at May's European elections and have made no secret of their wish for more time to prepare themselves for national elections.
   
Kurz and his People's Party (OeVP), by contrast, won a thumping victory at the European elections and have a commanding lead in the polls, with one survey last week putting them at 38 percent, compared to just 23 percent for the SPOe and 17 for the FPOe.
   
If 32-year-old Kurz remains in such a commanding position at the end of the campaign he may be able to form a new coalition with either the liberal NEOS party or the Greens, both on nine percent in the same poll.
   
Two weeks ago the FPOe and SPOe both voted for a no-confidence motion which saw Kurz's government removed from office.
 
 
President Alexander Van der Bellen shakes Constitutional Court President Brigitte Bierlein's hand after appointing her as  interim Chancellor during the government's swearing-in ceremony in Vienna on June 3rd. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP
 
 A interim technocratic government under senior judge Brigitte Bierlein then took over.  
   
In a poster campaign launched on Tuesday the OeVP accused the FPOe and SPOe of colluding to bring down the government unnecessarily.
   
The FPOe for its part has said it is open to the possibility of a new coalition with the OeVP.
   
Following the explosive revelations in the video published by German media last month, Strache stepped down from his position as vice-chancellor and as head of the FPOe.
   
However, he received enough so-called “preference votes” in the European elections to take up a place as a member of the European Parliament, though he has so far not announced whether he will do so.

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SCANDAL

Austrian far-right kicks out scandal-hit ex-leader

Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) announced on Friday that it has ousted its former leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who was caught in a corruption scandal that saw the party ejected from government in May.

Austrian far-right kicks out scandal-hit ex-leader
Heinz-Christian Strache shortly after announcing a "total withdrawal form public life" in October. Photo: Joe Klamar / AFP
High-profile FPOe leaders called a press conference in which they said “the Strache chapter was being definitively closed” for the party, dogged for months by the fallout from the so-called “Ibiza-gate” scandal.    
 
In May sensational hidden-camera footage of Strache emerged which had been filmed on the Spanish island of Ibiza in 2017.
   
In it Strache appeared to offer public contracts to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch, in return for campaign help.
   
Fifty-year-old Strache immediately stepped down as party leader but the scandal led to the collapse of the FPOe's coalition government with the centre-right People's Party (OeVP). 
 
 
Friday's expulsion is the latest episode in a spectacular fall from grace for Strache, who had led the party into government and became Vice-Chancellor after elections in autumn 2017 in which the party won 26 percent of the vote.
   
In that administration the FPOe gained control of several high-profile cabinet posts, including the coveted position of interior minister.
   
But the snap elections called after the Ibiza-gate scandal broke saw the party lose almost 10 points in vote share and the party remains stuck at around 15 percent in the polls.
   
That disastrous result, along with fresh embarrassing revelations about Strache's alleged abuse of expenses, led to increasing tension between Strache and the party's new leadership.
   
The latest bout of infighting mirrors splits in previous decades that similarly rocked the party, founded in the 1950s by former Nazis.
   
Reacting to the party's decision in a video posted on his Facebook page on Friday, Strache said he accepted that his party membership was “history”.
   
Even though he had announced in October that he would undertake “a total withdrawal from politics and public life”, he said on Friday that the support he had received in recent weeks “has led me to consider a political comeback in 2020”.
   
On Thursday three FPOe city councillors in Vienna seen as sympathetic to Strache left the party to set up their own grouping, the Alliance for Austria.
 
There has been persistent speculation that Strache wants to take part in next year's municipal elections in the Austrian capital and he himself referred on Friday to “big, exciting challenges waiting for me in the coming year”.