VIENNA – Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was ousted by parliament in a no-confidence vote Monday, paving the way for a new election. The young leader, riding high in popular support, defiantly vowed that he and his center-right People’s Party would return to power with increased strength.
The vote capped a week of turmoil at the top in Austria that started when Kurz pulled the plug on his coalition with the far-right Freedom Party after a video emerged showing that party’s leader appearing to be offering lucrative government contracts to a purported Russian investor.
A new election is already planned for September, and President Alexander Van der Bellen now needs to appoint a caretaker government to serve until then.
Less than three hours after losing his job, Kurz appeared before a cheering crowd outside party offices in Vienna, pledging that “the changes that we began two years ago will not end today.” He said he looked forward to helping the interim government ensure stability in the coming months, and would fight to win back his position.
“In the end the people will decide in September, and I’m happy about that,” he said to chants from the crowd of “Chancellor Kurz.”
He lashed out at the Freedom Party as well as the opposition Social Democrats, who brought the no-confidence vote, saying from them “we have only heard one thing, that Kurz must go, that’s the only platform of those two parties and I’m afraid to say I must disappoint them both: I’m still here.”
No-confidence votes are common in Austrian politics, but this is the first one to have succeeded in its modern history. The result makes Kurz the shortest-serving chancellor since 1945 with 525 days in office, according to the Austria Press Agency.
Before the fall election, Kurz now loses the advantage of campaigning as an incumbent chancellor but remains popular and his center-right party finished first Sunday in Austria in the European Parliament election with 34.9% support, a gain of almost 8 percentage points over 2014.
The 32-year-old, who became Europe’s youngest leader when he was sworn in just before Christmas 2017, remained composed earlier in the day amid withering criticism from opponents in parliament before the no-confidence vote.
He told the body that he was “proud and satisfied with the work we have done as a government in the past year and a half” and pledged to work constructively with the caretaker government.
“We will certainly not put any stones on the path of the next government,” he said. “We will support them as much as possible.”
Kurz also suggested he had no choice but to end his partnership with the Freedom Party after the video of Heinz-Christian Strache emerged. Strache has since resigned as Freedom Party leader, and his party’s ministers were replaced last week by interim technocrats until the new election.
“It was clear for me that it meant the end of the coalition,” Kurz said.
Herbert Kickl, a Freedom Party lawmaker who served as interior minister in the coalition, accused Kurz of using the Strache video as a chance to consolidate his own power.
“He made the entire Freedom Party responsible for the wrong actions of two people,” Kickl told parliament. “He tried to take advantage of a difficult situation of a government partner. He tried to enlarge his own power base.”
Social Democrat leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner issued the same charge.
“This is a shameless, unrestrained and irresponsible power grab, this is what we are witnessing,” she said. “But the power in our country is based on the people, and not you.”
Smart, charismatic and articulate, Kurz caught the eye of People’s Party leaders about a decade ago when he was elected the chairman of his party’s youth branch while in law school.
He was appointed state secretary for integration, overseeing government efforts to make immigrants into Austrians, in 2011.
In Austria’s previous government, a coalition between the Social Democrats and People’s Party, Kurz became Austria’s foreign minister and helped reinvent his party’s image and reinvigorate support.
With the upcoming fall elections, his opponents face an uphill battle. In the European election, the Social Democrats won 23.6% and the Freedom Party took 17.2% according to provisional results. The Freedom Party’s tally in Austria’s 2017 national election, in which it also finished third, was a much stronger 26% with the Social Democrats second with 26.9%.
The People’s Party took 31.5% of the vote in that election.
It was not immediately clear when the Austrian president would appoint the new government.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.