BRUSSELS – Hours after scandal-ridden former Chancellor of Austria Sebastian Kurz announced on Thursday that he would be leaving politics, successor as chancellor also announced that he would resign.
The double departure sent another shock of fear into Austria’s troubled politics, which had been rocked in the past two months by the abrupt resignation of Mr Kurz as chancellor.
His successor, Alexander Schallenberg, is a close ally and served him as foreign minister. But now that Mr Kurz is stepping down from politics and the leadership of the ruling Austrian People’s Party, Mr Schallenberg said he would step down as soon as a new party leader is appointed, as he felt that the party leader and the chancellor should be the same person.
A new party leader could be named as early as Friday, while the current immigration campaigner Karl Nehammer is the preferred candidate for the job, Austrian media reported.
Mr Kurz, 35, resigned as chancellor on Oct. 9 in the face of a growing influence-buying scandal and corruption that is the subject of a criminal investigation.
He said on Thursday that he wanted to spend more time with his partner and newborn son, claiming that “a new chapter in my life is beginning that I can open today.”
But many believe that Kurz, who became one of the world’s youngest democratically elected heads of government at the age of 31 in 2017, will not be out of politics forever.
Kurz, who has dominated Austrian politics, was considered a “Wunderwuzzi” – a whiz kid – and at the age of 27 he became foreign minister in 2013.
But even his first term as chancellor ended in scandal. He was criticized for having come to power by entering into a coalition with the far-right PVV. And then, in 2019, the Freedom Party became entangled in a massive corruption scandal, the coalition collapsed and parliament fired Mr Kurz, forcing new elections.
Mr Kurz was re-elected in 2019, but his most recent troubles have come from within his own party, which is accused of paying newspapers for favorable coverage.
In October, prosecutors ordered raids on the Chancellery and the Treasury Department, investigating allegations that Mr. Kurz and party insiders used public money to pay for polls designed to boost his image, then ran lucrative public advertisements in a tabloid newspaper, Österreich, so it would publish the polls and provide supportive coverage. The ads were reportedly worth $1.3 million, or about $1.5 million.
Mr. Kurz and nine other individuals, as well as three organizations, are under investigation. mr. Kurz denies any wrongdoing, as does the newspaper.
While he stepped down as chancellor, Mr Kurz had maintained his leadership of the party and of the party’s parliamentary faction. Mr Schallenberg, 52, a sociable former diplomat and former spokesperson for the State Department before becoming Secretary of State, was considered a placeholder for carrying out Mr. Kurz’s policies until Mr. Kurz could bear his name. purged and returned to function.
Mr Kurz’s decision to retire from politics made Mr Schallenberg’s resignation inevitable.
In a statement early Thursday evening, Mr Schallenberg said: “I firmly believe that both positions – head of government and leader of the Austrian party with the most votes – should soon be held by the same person again. I will therefore make my position as chancellor available as soon as the appropriate course has been charted within the party.”
Mr Kurz spelled out his own epitaph – even if it’s possibly temporary – on Thursday. “I am neither a saint nor a criminal, I am a person with strengths and weaknesses,” he said. As a politician, he said: “You also constantly feel that you are being hunted.”