Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is under investigation over claims that government money was used in a corrupt deal to ensure positive coverage in a tabloid newspaper, prosecutors have announced.
A statement on Wednesday from prosecutors said raids had been carried out in several locations, including two government ministries, as part of the probe, the latest legal headache for Kurz and his right-wing People’s Party.
Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel confirmed that a raid had taken place at his ministry, and Austrian media reported that the chancellery was also one of the locations targeted.
Prosecutors said that Kurz and nine other individuals, as well as three organisations, are under investigation over the affair.
The essence of the allegations is that between 2016 and 2018, “resources from the finance ministry were used to finance partially manipulated opinion polls that served an exclusively party political interest”, the prosecutors said.
This correlates to the time period in which Kurz took over the leadership of the People’s Party and led it into government at the helm of a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).
Prosecutors allege that an unnamed media company “received payments” in return for publishing these surveys.
The company in question has not been officially named, but has been widely identified in Austria media as the Oesterreich tabloid.
The group that runs Oesterreich put out a statement denying that any wrongdoing had been committed in the commissioning or publication of its surveys.
Al Jazeera’s Dominic Kane, reporting from Berlin, said an opinion poll was put out by the newspaper in question, which “cast Mr Kurz’s party in a very preferential light, and it wasn’t put out as an advertisement”.
Kane said that certain individuals in that newspaper were then given positions on the board of a specific company.
“The suggestion being put forward by the prosecutors is that federal finance was involved in this – that means government money, ie, taxpayers money,” he said.
“This is the first time [Kurz] has found himself personally under investigation for corruption, bribery,” Kane added.
‘House of cards’
There has been no direct reaction from Kurz, who had been attending a summit of European Union leaders in Slovenia.
However, other People’s Party politicians have reacted angrily to the raids with party Deputy General Secretary Gabriela Schwarz saying they were “for show” and that “accusations were constructed over events that date back as far as five years”.
People’s Party member of parliament Andreas Hanger went as far as to blame the probe on “left-wing cells” in the prosecutors’ office.
The latest allegations may put fresh strain on the party’s coalition with the Green party, which has already come under pressure from the fallout from an earlier scandal.
The 2019 “Ibiza-gate” affair led to the spectacular collapse of Kurz’s previous government with the Freedom Party.
Investigators launched corruption inquiries after ex-FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on camera appearing to offer public contracts in exchange for campaign help for the FPOe.
Some of these have targeted high-ranking People’s Party figures, including Bluemel.
Kurz was also put under investigation on suspicion of making false statements to a parliamentary committee on corruption, though he has not been charged.
The main opposition Social Democrats said Wednesday’s raids showed the People’s Party “house of cards was noisily collapsing” and criticised Kurz’s party for “discrediting the independent judiciary and attempting to stymie its investigations”.
For the moment, prominent Green party politicians have remained circumspect over the latest allegations, which erupted just days after the government unveiled a carbon tax as part of its flagship “eco-social” overhaul of the tax system.
Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler told reporters that the raids had had no impact on the coalition’s ability to govern.
He did, however, push back against the People’s Party characterisation of the raids as a show, pointing out that the warrants would have needed a judge’s approval.