Austrian chancellor stepping down after strongman Kurz quits politics

Alexander Schallenberg says leader of government should also be leader of the ruling party, a position he does not want

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg. AP

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg is stepping down to make way for whoever takes over as leader of his conservative party, he said on Thursday, hours after party strongman Sebastian Kurz said he was leaving politics altogether.

Mr Kurz stunned Austria and left a power vacuum in his People's Party (OVP) with his announcement.

He had quit as chancellor in October at the behest of his coalition partner, the Greens, after prosecutors opened a corruption inquiry, although he remained party head and a member of Parliament.

Mr Schallenberg, a career diplomat, has been in the job for less than two months since taking over from Mr Kurz.

Austrian media have reported that Interior Minister Karl Nehammer, an enforcer of Mr Kurz's hard line on immigration, is most likely to become party leader and chancellor when the OVP leadership meets on Friday.

"I firmly believe that both positions – head of government and leader of the Austrian party with the most votes – should soon once again be held by the same person," Mr Schallenberg said, adding that he did not want to be party leader.

"I am therefore making my post as chancellor available as soon as the relevant course has been set within the party."

Mr Schallenberg has been accused of being Mr Kurz's puppet, and of holding the country's leadership only until his political master clears his name.

Mr Kurz, 35, is one of 10 people suspected of varying degrees of breach of trust, corruption and bribery.

Prosecutors claim public funds were used to secretly commission manipulated polling that was published to help Mr Kurz become party leader and then chancellor in 2017. He denies wrongdoing.

Mr Kurz took much of his party by surprise on Thursday morning by announcing he was leaving politics.

One of his closest political allies, Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel, later said that he was also quitting politics, making a large Cabinet reshuffle more likely.

Mr Kurz has been the dominant and most polarising figure of Austrian politics since 2017, winning a parliamentary election and forming a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

"I am neither a saint nor a criminal," he said in his announcement.

Mr Kurz said he felt "hunted" because of criticism during his time as chancellor. He has most recently come under fire for not doing more to prevent the latest wave of Covid-19 infections, which led to the current national lockdown.

He led his party in two parliamentary elections, in 2017 and 2019, becoming chancellor after both.

But Mr Kurz's time in government was mired in scandals including the corruption investigation and his dismissal by Parliament in 2019 after the leader of the FPO, Heinz-Christian Strache, was caught on video allegedly trying to fix state contracts.

The OVP is one of the main traditional parties in Austria but has recently been built around Mr Kurz, leaving no obvious choice to succeed him.

Most polls showed the OVP had a lead of at least 10 points over its nearest rival, the opposition Social Democrats, until Mr Kurz was placed under investigation in October.

Polls now show the two parties neck and neck.

At the same time, a snap election is unlikely as the latest polling suggest the OVP and the Greens would probably lose seats. This Parliament is due to last until autumn 2023.

Updated: December 2nd 2021, 10:07 PM