Austrian Chancellor Schallenberg says he will step down

The chancellor announces resignation less than two months after taking office from his scandal-plagued predecessor, Sebastian Kurz.

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg's announcement comes less than two months after taking office [File: Joe Klamar/AFP]

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg is going to step down, he says, in a move that came less than two months after taking office.

In a statement released on Thursday, Schallenberg said he will continue in office until his conservative Austrian People’s Party (OeVP) agrees on its next leader.

“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,” 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.”

The conservative politician’s announcement comes hours after his scandal-plagued predecessor, Sebastian Kurz, announced he was stepping down as party leader and parliamentary group leader of the OeVP, leaving a power vacuum in the party.

Kurz had quit as chancellor in October at the behest of his coalition partner, the Greens, after prosecutors opened a corruption inquiry, though he remained party head and a lawmaker.

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

Schallenberg is widely seen as an accidental chancellor with no power base of his own and he has been dogged by allegations that he is little more than Kurz’s puppet keeping the seat warm while his political master seeks to clear his own name.

Kurz, 35, is one of 10 people suspected of varying degrees of breach of trust, corruption and bribery in a case in which prosecutors allege public funds were used to secretly commission manipulated polling that was published with a view to helping Kurz become party leader and then chancellor in 2017. Kurz denies wrongdoing.

No saint

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

He has been the dominant and most polarising figure of Austrian politics since 2017 when he became OeVP leader and then chancellor, winning a parliamentary election and forming a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPO).

Kurz said on Thursday that he had always done his best to “move our beautiful Austria a little bit in the right direction”, but acknowledged having made some mistakes during his 10-year career.

“I am neither a saint nor a criminal,” he said in a statement to the media.

He said he planned to spend more time with his girlfriend and their newborn son.

Kurz said he had felt “hunted” because of hefty 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 prompted the current national lockdown.

He led his party in two parliamentary elections in 2017 and 2019, becoming chancellor after both. But his time in government was mired in scandals including the corruption investigation and his dismissal by Parliament in 2019 after a video sting ensnared the then-leader of the FPO and their coalition collapsed.

His OeVP is one of the main traditional parties in Austria but under Kurz it has largely been built around him, leaving no obvious choice to succeed him as its strongman. Kurz did not endorse anyone to succeed him.

Most polls showed the OeVP had a lead of at least 10 points over its nearest rival, the opposition Social Democrats, until 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 suggests both the OeVP and the Greens would likely lose seats. This Parliament is due to last until autumn 2023.

Source: News Agencies