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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 former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had defended the benefit cuts. 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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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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