Austria's Alexander Schallenberg takes power as Kurz lurks in shadows

Opposition suspects former chancellor will continue to pull the strings as party leader

Alexander Schallenberg was sworn in as Austria’s new chancellor on Monday, with his predecessor Sebastian Kurz hovering in the shadows after a week of political intrigue in Vienna.

Mr Kurz's resignation was widely labelled a "chess move" after he ceded power to Mr Schallenberg while remaining leader of his centre-right party, hoping to fight the corruption claims that forced him out.

Opposition leaders believe Mr Kurz will continue to pull the strings — and suspect he plans to return to the chancellorship if he can fend off the scandal.

Confirming that Mr Kurz would remain an influential player, Mr Schallenberg said he would "obviously work very closely" with his predecessor. "Anything else would be absurd in democratic politics," he said.

"I am taking on my new role as chancellor with the utmost respect for the office and the challenges ahead," he said. "I will do everything I can to serve our beautiful country."

One of the world’s youngest leaders at 35, Mr Kurz has been temporarily out of office before. After a separate scandal involving the far right, he handed power in 2019 to an interim cabinet in which Mr Schallenberg was a senior minister.

Mr Schallenberg, 52, stayed on as foreign minister when Mr Kurz returned to power, and backed Austria’s hardline stance on immigration.

A former diplomat, Mr Schallenberg hosted the high-stakes talks in Vienna aimed at restoring the nuclear deal between the US, Iran and world powers.

Mr Kurz said the new chancellor had a “knack for diplomacy” which would be needed to restore trust within the government.

Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, a Green politician who presided over the swearing-in ceremony, praised Mr Schallenberg as a pro-European who could bring people together.

"You know exactly how to find common ground between the most contrary positions," he said. "You know from your experience how to come to a good solution that works for everyone."

Statesman or shadow chancellor?

Colleagues in the ruling Austrian People’s Party showered Mr Kurz with praise after he stepped aside to provide “stable conditions” in Vienna.

Prosecutors had announced on Wednesday that Mr Kurz was under investigation over claims that public money was used to buy positive media coverage. He denies wrongdoing.

His coalition partners, the Greens, had signalled that Mr Kurz’s position was untenable and a confidence vote was scheduled for Tuesday.

“Sebastian Kurz took a statesmanlike step which once again shows his enormous sense of responsibility,” said August Woeginger, a leader of the People’s Party in parliament.

The Greens said the coalition could continue under Mr Schallenberg, whom they described as having worked constructively with the party. Michael Linhart, previously ambassador to France, was named foreign minister.

But opposition parties were suspicious of Mr Kurz’s motives, fearing he could use parliamentary immunity to obstruct investigations.

“As party leader he will continue to pull strings in the background,” said Pamela Rendi-Wagner, the chairwoman of the Social Democratic Party.

“You can summarise it this way … Kurz is no longer chancellor, but shadow chancellor of the Republic of Austria.”

The party criticised the Greens for staying in a coalition with Mr Schallenberg rather than seeking an alternative alliance.

“The Greens had the chance to finish off the Kurz system, an important opportunity for Austria that they’ve wasted to stay in power,” said Christian Deutsch, another Social Democratic leader.

Mr Kurz said he was resigning partly to prevent the Greens from breaking away and forming a messy four-way coalition with the Social Democrats and others.

Any such deal would have to include some support from the far-right Freedom Party, which said Mr Kurz should resign as party leader.

Erwin Angerer, a regional Freedom Party leader, highlighted that a local branch of the People’s Party had openly called for a Kurz comeback, which has been the subject of much speculation.

“He remains leader of the People’s Party and flees into parliamentary immunity. The Kurz system will continue to operate,” he said.

Martin Gruber, the head of Mr Kurz’s party in the state of Carinthia, was among those hoping for a comeback.

“The allegations against him must be cleared up as soon as possible and not drag on for years on end, in order that he can quickly return as chancellor,” Mr Gruber said.

Mr Kurz governed with the Freedom Party until 2019, when a far-right leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, was caught allegedly offering corrupt deals at a dinner party in Ibiza.

The scandal brought down the government, but Mr Kurz returned to power with the Greens after winning the election in September 2019.

Updated: October 11th 2021, 1:55 PM
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