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Austrian Chancellor Kurz sees image dented as he faces investigations

Once hailed as a "wunderkind", Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has seen his carefully built image dented amid coronavirus fatigue and an investigation into whether he lied to a parliamentary committee on corruption.

sebastian-kurz-austria
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wears a face mask as he arrives for a meeting with Bavaria's State Premier at the Bavarian State Chancellery in Munich, southern Germany, on May 11, 2021. Peter Kneffel / POOL / AFP

It should have been a good month for the 34-year-old conservative — who became the world’s youngest democratically elected leader when he first took
office in 2017 — with the lengthy virus lockdown easing.

But prosecutors announced on Wednesday that they are investigating Kurz for giving false testimony to a committee of lawmakers probing the “Ibiza-gate” scandal and other graft allegations.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Austria’s ‘Ibiza-gate’ video

If charged, Kurz would be the first chancellor to have to face court while in office in the small Alpine EU member state of some nine million people.

Kurz himself has dismissed the allegations, saying he expects to be charged but not to be found guilty and that he is refusing to step down, slamming what he says are efforts to unseat him.

“I have said nothing that is not truthful,” Kurz told a selected group of Austrian media outlets on Thursday.

‘Kiss’ emoticons
Kurz’s party’s approval ratings already dropped to around 30 percent last month compared to a high of close to 50 percent a year ago.

Austria largely managed to keep the virus at bay during the first wave last year, but has struggled in the third wave with a lockdown since last November.

The investigation compounds Kurz’s troubles as his party’s financing and other practices have also come under the spotlight in recent months.

“It’s the most severe crisis in his chancellorship,” political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP, adding it has “distracted” from this month’s planned re-opening of restaurants and other leisure venues.

“For Sebastian Kurz, who has been spoiled with success for a long time, it is the most delicate phase of his career,” Die Presse daily wrote in an editorial on Friday.

The investigation announced on Wednesday pertains to statements Kurz gave to a committee of lawmakers last year, in which he denied having had any influence over the appointment of the head of the OeBAG state holding company, Thomas Schmid.

However, in recent months text messages between Kurz and Schmid have come to light, including one exchange where Kurz wrote: “You get everything you
want”, adding several “kiss” emoticons, to which Schmid replied: “I’m so happy :-))) I love my chancellor”.

If found guilty of lying under oath, Kurz could face up to three years in jail.

Kurz already had to step down as chancellor once, in 2019, when his one-and-a-half-year-old coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) fell apart because of the so-called “Ibiza-gate” scandal.

FPOe then leader and vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned after a secretly filmed video showed him in a luxury villa in Ibiza offering public contracts to a woman he thought was a Russian oligarch’s niece.

In the aftermath, Kurz lost a no-confidence vote in parliament and fresh elections were called, where he managed to secure a strengthened mandate as disillusioned far-right voters flocked to his People’s Party (OeVP).

‘No competitor’
But Kurz’s current junior coalition partner, the Greens, who campaigned on a transparency platform, have been at pains to defend him and his allies hit by allegations of wrongdoing.

In February, the home of OeVP finance minister and Kurz ally Gernot Blümel was raided as part of a probe into possible party financing offences.

READ ALSO: Austrian minister’s home raided in casino corruption probe

“You can see a very heated atmosphere in Austria right now,” Hofer said, adding the current investigation “increases pressure on the Greens a lot”.

On an international level, too, Kurz has frequently had run-ins with other EU leaders.

In the latest row in March, Kurz raised concerns about vaccine distribution within the bloc, saying there had been a lack of transparency surrounding deals between some EU states and vaccine manufacturers.

But analysts point out Kurz’s OeVP is still firmly ahead in the polls.

“Despite the investigations, he overall remains fairly popular as a chancellor,” said Julia Partheymüller of Vienna University’s Centre for Electoral Research.

Another analyst, Peter Hajek, said “on a national level, there is not really any outstanding competitor”.

He added that Kurz could rely on his communication and crisis management skills — at least for now.

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POLITICS

Reader question: Can I vote in Austria’s presidential elections?

On October 9th, Austria will vote to elect a new president, but who can vote in these national elections?

Reader question: Can I vote in Austria's presidential elections?

Austria’s presidential election will take place on October 9th, with seven candidates vying to take over at the Hofburg – the official workplace of the country’s president.

According to opinion polls, the favourite to win is the current president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is running for reelection.

READ ALSO: Austrian presidential elections: Who are the seven candidates?

A presidential candidate must be an Austrian citizen, be eligible to vote in the National Assembly and be at least 35 years old on election day.

Members of ruling dynasties or families that reigned in the past are not eligible to run in the presidential election. This is to avoid a return to monarchy in Austria via the role of the Federal President.

Who can vote in these elections?

The only people allowed to vote in Austrian federal elections are Austrian citizens aged 16 or above.

That means foreigners – even those born and raised in Austria, are not entitled to choose a new president. Unless, of course, they take up Austrian citizenship (usually giving up their original citizenship).

Since Austria has a large proportion of foreigners in the population, many people will not be able to vote in these elections.

READ ALSO: ‘I pay taxes in Austria’: Anger as foreigners barred from Vienna council vote

In fact, some 18 percent of residents (or 1.4 million people) in Austria over the age of 16 do not have the right to vote because they are not citizens, with the highest concentration of ineligible people in Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg.

In comparison, 20 years ago, Austria had just 580,000 people without the right to vote.

Statistics Austria data evaluated by the APA shows that around 30 percent of the voting-age population in Vienna, Innsbruck and Salzburg are not entitled to vote. In Linz and Graz, it is about 25 percent.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does Austria’s presidential election work?

However, there are some smaller communities in Austria where the number of people without the right to vote is even higher.

In Jungholz in Tyrol, 66 percent of the population are not eligible, followed by 51 percent in Mittelberg in Vorarlberg. Kittsee in Burgenland and Wolfsthal in Lower Austria also have high proportions of Slovakian residents who cannot vote.

Austrian citizenship

Currently, in Austria, if someone wants to take up citizenship via naturalisation, they must undergo an extensive and expensive process and fulfil specific criteria.

Generally, there needs to be at least ten years of lawful and uninterrupted residence in Austria. But there are exceptions for those with citizenship of an EU or EEA country, those born in Austria, or married to an Austrian, for example.

READ ALSO: Could Austria change the rules around citizenship?

The main hurdles, however, include having to give up any other citizenships, as Austria doesn’t allow for dual citizenship in naturalisation cases with few exceptions, and the payment of a high fee, which depends on the municipality, but could reach thousands of euros.

And though the topic of easing the requirements has come up several times in Austria, the country doesn’t seem any closer to changing its citizenship laws.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Where in Europe can non-EU foreigners vote in local elections?

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