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EXPLAINED: Why was Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz forced to resign?

Austria's top diplomat Alexander Schallenberg takes over as chancellor on Monday as the ruling party tries to emerge from a corruption scandal that cost the job of one of Europe's youngest leaders.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has been forced to step down after a series of corruption allegations against his party. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

Sebastian Kurz, a 35-year-old once feted as a “whizz kid”, said late Saturday he was quitting the top job after being implicated in a corruption scandal.

Schallenberg, 52, will be sworn in by President Alexander Van der Bellen at 1:00 pm (1100 GMT).

Kurz’s centre-right People’s Party (ÖVP) and their junior Green coalition partners are hoping to move on from the scandal and serve out the rest of their term until 2024.

However, the fallout from last week’s events may continue to reverberate.

On Wednesday prosecutors raided several ÖVP-linked locations, including the chancellory and party headquarters, over allegations that between 2016 and 2018 finance ministry resources were used to finance “partially manipulated opinion polls that served an exclusively party-political interest”.

Prosecutors allege that payments were made to an unnamed media company — widely understood to be the Oesterreich tabloid, which was also raided on Wednesday — in return for publishing these surveys.

The offences were allegedly committed to help Kurz, already a government minister at the beginning of the period in question, take over the leadership of the ÖVP. 

‘Kurz system’

While Kurz initially insisted there was no reason for him to resign — and continues to vehemently protest his innocence — he then reversed course, saying he was putting the country before his own interests.

But many say Kurz bowed to pressure from the Greens and from within his own party. Kurz’s critics point out he will still be head of the ÖVP and will now sit as leader of its bloc in parliament — an ideal position from which to exercise influence as a “shadow chancellor”.

The opposition parties say the “Kurz system” will carry on unhindered through the presence of ministers loyal to him as well as high-ranking employees who look set to continue in post — some of whom are also suspects in the corruption inquiry.

Until now Schallenberg had served as foreign minister under Kurz and is widely seen as being loyal.

The latest scandal to hit Kurz adds to a list of corruption allegations against the ÖVP and several of its prominent figures, including Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel.

Those allegations surfaced in the aftermath of the so-called “Ibiza-gate” affair that in 2019 brought down Kurz’s first government, a coalition between the ÖVP and the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).

Despite that Kurz came out on top in elections in autumn 2019 and re-entered government, this time at the head of a coalition with the Greens.

Schallenberg’s replacement as Foreign Minister was announced by the ÖVP-controlled ministry on Monday as Michael Linhart, the current Austrian ambassador to France.

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AUSTRIAN CITIZENSHIP

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen has hit out at Austria's naturalisation process, saying "the hurdles are too high". But how hard is it to get Austrian citizenship - and will the criticism lead to change?

Could presidential criticism lead to Austrian citizenship rule changes?

Austria’s federal president Alexander Van der Bellen, who is eyeing a second term in office in the autumn elections, has said that the hurdles for citizenship are too high in the alpine country.

“Citizenship is a valuable asset. I think the hurdles for obtaining it are too high.”, he said in an interview with the newspaper Kleine Zeitung.

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

Van der Bellen mentioned a case with a German citizen who has lived in Austria for 20 years and cannot obtain dual citizenship: “He can vote neither here nor there. And that is the European Union?”

Austria does not allow for dual citizenship of naturalised citizens except in very few cases (including naturalisation of those who are descendants of Holocaust victims).

This is one of the many hurdles to citizenship in the country.

What makes Austrian citizenship so difficult to get?

Citizenship through naturalisation, meaning you are not the son or daughter of an Austrian citizen, is particularly hard to get.

First of all, the majority of applicants will need to give up any other citizenships they hold. So, a British citizen taking Austrian nationality through marriage or residence time will have to give up their British passport.

READ ALSO: Which European countries have the toughest rules for gaining citizenship?

Besides severing that connection to a home country where people might still have many ties, this can lead to difficulties in matters of inheritance and property ownership, for example.

The naturalisation process is also long and expensive in Austria. In Vienna, the application costs €130. If successful, the new Austrian citizen can expect to pay from € 1,100 to € 1,500 just for the award – that doesn’t include costs with documentation, translation, and issuance of documents such as an Austrian passport.

The length of the process varies, but it can take more than a year for citizenship to be awarded.

The requirements will also be different depending on how long the person is legally an Austrian resident and what is their connection to the country.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Will my children get an Austrian passport if born in Austria?

For example, after 30 years of residence in Austria, you need to prove you are not a danger to the country and that you can support yourself.

You also need to prove German skills and pass a citizenship test.

The minimum amount of time of legal residency after which you can require citizenship is six years for people who fall into specific categories, such as legal and uninterrupted residence in Austria and possession of the citizenship of an EEA state, birth in Austria or German at a B2 level.

Will Austria change its citizenship rules?

It is improbable that there will be any significant changes soon. Despite Van der Bellen’s statements, citizenship laws are not within the federal president’s competence and mostly depend on legislative changes.

The party leading the ruling coalition, ÖVP, is against any changes, claiming that making the process easier would “depreciate” Austrian citizenship.

READ ALSO: ​​Why has naturalisation in Austria doubled in 2022 – and who are the new citizens?

Austria has recently seen a jump in naturalisation numbers, but that can largely be viewed as a one-off phenomenon after changes in the process for descendants of Nazi victims.

While junior partner Greens have been in favour of easing some rules, little is expected to happen with the ÖVP in power. The next parliamentary elections are set for 2024, though. If the SPÖ continues climbing in the polls, an SPÖ-Green coalition could push forward different rules.

Also, if the Red-Green-Yellow ruling coalition in Germany does succeed in easing naturalisation rules in the neighbouring country, Austria could see further pressure for domestic changes.

But that remains to be seen, mainly depending on the 2024 election results.

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