Austria’s Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, from the far right Freedom Party, has resigned over allegations of corruption, just days before key European elections.
Germany’s Der Spiegel news magazine and Süddeutsche Zeitung daily newspaper published video on Friday of Strache appearing to offer government contracts to a woman who claimed to be a Russian investor and niece of an oligarch.
During a news conference on Saturday morning, Strache denied doing “anything against the law,” and labeled the allegations “a targeted political attack.”
However, Strache said he wanted to “apologize to everyone I have disappointed with my behavior.” He said he would also step down as head of the Freedom Party, which is part of Austria’s ruling coalition with Sebastian Kurz’ conservative People’s Party.
The coalition is now facing its biggest crisis since it was formed in 2017. Outside the Chancellor’s office in Vienna, where Kurz was due to make a statement, more than 5,000 anti-government protesters gathered, calling for fresh elections.
“I’m here’s because Strache resigned and the entire FPÖ [Freedom Party] is intolerable,” Florian Gantner told CNN. “The Chancellor has to react and the entire government should step down. We need a new election.”
The managing director of Austria’s Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) blamed Kurz for the scandal.
“He must confess to the Austrians this failure and take full responsibility for this chaos. He has brought Austria into this disastrous situation and put the stability of the country on the line,” SPÖ’s Thomas Drozda said in a statement.
It is not known who recorded the video or set up the meeting, which allegedly took place on July 24, 2017, on the Spanish island of Ibiza, three months before the Austrian elections.
Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung report that the “Russian” woman offered to buy a 50% stake in Austria’s Kronen-Zeitung newspaper and ensure it supported the Freedom Party.
Strache admitted to meeting the woman and described it as a “private conversation” in Ibiza. He said he was “drunk” but “no donations have been made to the party” as a result of the meeting.
“It was a typical alcohol-infused macho behavior…. With this I have hurt the most important person in my life, which is my wife,” Strache said.
Kurz had accepted his resignation, Strache said. Transport Minister Norbert Hofer, who ran for President in 2016, is expected to take over from him as head of the Freedom Party.
Freedom Party politician Johann Gudenus, who was in the video translating Russian into German for Strache, also resigned on Saturday.
“With this I announce that I will retire from my position as Managing Club Chairman and as member of parliament. I will step back from all my positions within the Freedom Party of Austria,” Gudenus said in a statement.
“I want to express my deep regret for the things that happened more than two years ago. I deeply regret having disappointed the trust from voters, party members and co-workers.”
The Freedom Party has long been part of Austria’s political landscape. Founded by former Nazis in the 1950s, it first entered government 17 years ago, the first far-right party to do so in postwar Europe.
Strache had sought to modernize the party, but accusations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia continue to linger.
In April, a Freedom Party member and deputy mayor of Hitler’s birthplace resigned after writing a “deeply racist” poem comparing migrants to rats.
According to Reuters, the Freedom Party has a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia party.
Strache is an opponent of sanctions on Russia, which were imposed by the EU and the US over Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014.
In a 2018 interview with the newspaper Oesterreich, Strache made his position clear.
“It is high time to put an end to these exasperating sanctions and normalize political and economic relations with Russia,” he said.
Austria was also one of the few EU countries not to expel Russian diplomats in response to British allegations of Kremlin involvement in the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury in March 2018.