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Knives out among Austria's far-right after poll rout

Knives out among Austrias far-right after poll rout

Vienna: Austria's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) grappled Tuesday with the fallout from heavy losses in Sunday's elections as its scandal-hit former leader said he was bowing out of politics.

The man at the centre of scandals which have dogged the party over the summer, disgraced former vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, announced Tuesday "a total withdrawal from politics and public life" -- but this may not be enough to stem the instability at the heart of the party.

Strache, who led the FPOe for 14 years, was forced to quit all his posts in May over the so-called "Ibiza-gate" tapes, which showed him appearing to offer public contracts to a woman he believed was a Russian oligarch's niece in return for campaign help.

That affair put an end to the FPOe's coalition with the centre-right People's Party (OeVP) of Sebastian Kurz.

In the days leading up to Sunday's election, another scandal broke, this time involving Strache's alleged misuse of party money.

All this led to a stinging rebuke from voters, who sent the FPOe plummeting to 16 percent, down almost 10 points from their 2017 results.

Strache said on Tuesday that he considered his membership of the party suspended and wanted to "avoid at all costs... any splits within the FPOe".

His announcement was seen as an attempt to pre-empt an election post-mortem meeting of the FPOe's national executive on Tuesday.

New leader Norbert Hofer said after the meeting that the party was indeed suspending Strache, and added: "If the allegations of the past few days aren't refuted, he will be expelled."

Last week prosecutors confirmed they were investigating Strache's expenses and had questioned his former bodyguard and his former office manager "on the suspicion... of submitting fake receipts" costing the party more than 5,000 euros ( 5,500).

Strache again on Tuesday vehemently protested his innocence and insisted that he had been the target of a shadowy conspiracy.

The party had previously also enthusiastically echoed this idea and some voices inside the party say its main mistake in the campaign was not being aggressive enough.

"Instead of closing ranks we let this attack destabilise the party," controversial artist and FPOe member Odin Wiesinger told AFP.

"We made too many useless concessions to our opponents," he added. But since Sunday's poll debacle, many others have had the knives out for Strache.

"The problem is home-made," the leader of the FPOe in the Tyrol region, Markus Abwerzger, told Oe1 radio.

"It's not some foreign intelligence agency or the media who have got us into this situation but we ourselves," he said, calling on the party to stop playing the victim. Some had speculated that Strache would split off from the FPOe to form his own party.

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