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Monday, October 18, 2021

Austria’s new leader defends Kurz as opposition calls him Kurz’s puppet

  • Kurz placed under investigation on suspicion of corruption
  • Greens, junior party in coalition, had insisted Kurz go
  • Opposition says Schallenberg will be controlled by Kurz
  • Schallenberg says he will work “very closely” with Kurz

VIENNA, Oct 11 (Reuters) – Austria’s new Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg promised on Monday to work closely with his predecessor Sebastian Kurz, who quit in the face of corruption allegations, fuelling opposition allegations that the new leader would simply do Kurz’s bidding.

The Greens, the junior partner to Kurz’s conservatives, had demanded Kurz’s head after he and nine others including senior aides were placed under investigation last week on suspicion of varying degrees of breach of trust, corruption and bribery.

Kurz, who denies wrongdoing, will remain undisputed head of his party and become its top lawmaker in parliament.

Schallenberg, who was proposed by Kurz to succeed him, was sworn in on Monday and defended Kurz in his first public pronouncement as chancellor.

“I believe the accusations that have been made (against Kurz) are false and I am convinced that at the end of the day it will turn out that there was nothing to them,” Schallenberg said in a brief statement to the media without taking questions.

Schallenberg is a career diplomat and close ally who is a relative newcomer to politics. Critics say he is unlikely to be his own man.

He said he wanted to provide “responsibility and stability” but his remarks did little to appease the opposition.

“My impression is that he intends to do exactly that: go back to business as usual and act as if nothing happened,” the leader of the liberal Neos party, Beate Meinl-Reisinger, calling on Schallenberg to actively fight corruption.

PULLING THE STRINGS

Anti-corruption prosecutors say they suspect conservative officials in the Finance Ministry used state funds to pay for manipulated polling and coverage favourable to Kurz to appear in a newspaper starting in 2016, when Kurz was seeking to become party leader. He succeeded and won a parliamentary election the next year with pledges to take a hard line on immigration.

Critics accuse Kurz of overseeing a system or network that flouted rules on issues like party funding and appointments to state jobs in pursuit of power for him and allies. Kurz, who is under investigation separately for perjury, says all accusations are false.

“All opposition parties agree there is no change to the Kurz system. He still has all the strings in his hands and designated Chancellor Schallenberg is part of this Kurz system,” Kai Jan Krainer of the Social Democrats, who was on a parliamentary commission of inquiry that looked into possible corruption under a previous Kurz government, told ORF radio.

At Schallenberg’s swearing-in, President Alexander Van der Bellen said public trust in political institutions had been badly damaged by the investigation and text-messages it revealed that appeared to show Kurz and his allies acting cynically behind the scenes.

“The rearranged government now has a great responsibility not just to successfully continue this government’s projects but also responsibility for restoring the public’s trust in politics,” Van der Bellen said in his speech.

In some of the text-message exchanges, widely reported by Austrian media, Kurz calls a rival an “ass” and appears to instigate coalition deadlock, which he said he wanted to prevent. He expressed regret at the wording of some texts in his resignation speech on Saturday.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; editing by Philippa Fletcher

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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