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Austrian Chancellor Calls for Top Minister’s Ouster, Deepening Government Chaos

BERLIN — Austria’s troubled coalition government descended deeper into chaos on Monday, with the far-right Freedom Party pulling out its remaining ministers and casting adrift important parts of the government.

The fresh turmoil came after the governing coalition collapsed this weekend, when a video was made public appearing to show the vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache of the Freedom Party, promising government contracts to the niece of a Russian oligarch close to President Vladimir V. Putin. Mr. Strache quit on Saturday.

The scandal has raised concern in Austria and beyond of the influence the Kremlin wields with sympathetic far-right and populist parties around the Continent, just days before elections for the European Parliament in which nationalist forces are predicted to make a strong showing.

In response to the scandal, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Monday that he would ask the president to dismiss the interior minister, Herbert Kickl, a leading member of the Freedom Party. Mr. Kurz said he had failed to grasp the gravity of the scandal and failed to take firm action in its wake.

“In talks with him and others from his party since the video surfaced, I have not had the impression that there is an understanding for the dimension of the whole affair,” Mr. Kurz told reporters in Vienna in announcing his decision. “I also had the feeling there is not the necessary sensibility for how to handle these accusations.”

The Freedom Party quickly jettisoned its remaining four ministries in retaliation.

Mr. Kickl served as general secretary of the Freedom Party for 13 years and remains a key figure in the party, one of the country’s best-known politicians and a mastermind of the nationalist and populist slogans of the party’s recent election campaigns.

Speaking after a meeting with the president earlier Monday, Mr. Kickl accused the chancellor of “calculated power politics” in seeking to return the Interior Ministry — which commands the country’s security apparatus — to the hands of the conservative party that had controlled it for decades.

Under Mr. Kickl, the ministry ordered raids on the anti-extremism unit of its own domestic intelligence division, leading to calls from the opposition that he was trying to oust political opponents.

The leadership of the government ministries was assigned as part of the coalition agreement between Mr. Kurz’s conservative Austrian People’s Party and the far-right Freedom Party.

Any changes require the approval of the country’s president, Alexander Van der Bellen, who called on Sunday for new elections in September. He will now need to appoint technocrats in charge of the abandoned ministries until a new government takes power.

“We will fill the free positions with experts or high-ranking civil servants to ensure that the government remains able to govern until the election,” the chancellor said.

The scandal of recent days has brought an abrupt end to the government that Mr. Kurz, 32, had formed with the Freedom Party amid criticism that he was enabling the nationalist, far-right party after only 17 months in power.

The Freedom Party was founded by former Nazis in the years after World War II, and has long pushed a nationalist, anti-immigrant agenda that Mr. Kurz co-opted, repacked and rode to victory in elections in 2017. He has since depended on their support.

The Freedom Party’s ties to far-right extremists, including Generation Identity, a group that is under investigation by several European intelligence services, are well documented.

The video showing Mr. Strache and another member of his party was filmed without his knowledge. The footage was obtained and published on Friday by the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel and the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, two respected news outlets.

The New York Times could not independently verify the contents of the entire video, in which he could be heard promising a woman, claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, public road-building contracts in exchange for financial support for his party.

The video revived concern in Europe that forces from Russia were seeking to disrupt the democratic process, days before polls open in some of the 28 countries voting in the European parliamentary election. But Dmitri S. Peskov, a spokesman for the Kremlin, told reporters that the video “does not have and could not have anything to do with us.”

Support for the Freedom Party dropped by 5 percent, to 18 percent, while Mr. Kurz’s conservatives enjoyed a 4 percent increase in popularity to 38 percent, according to the results of a poll published on Monday by the online publication Österreich.

Within Austria that would leave the conservatives as the strongest force in the country, but not strong enough for them to form a government without including a smaller party.

In the rest of Europe, the impact of the scandal involving Austria’s far-right nationalists will be seen once results of the European Parliament elections are announced on Sunday.

Source: NYT

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