The Lingering Stink

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Austrian prosecutors indicted former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz over the weekend on charges of making false statements in a parliamentary inquiry three years ago, the latest development in a long-running political scandal that has unsettled the country since 2019, Politico reported.

The recent indictment is part of the long-running “Ibiza affair” that has embroiled Kurz’s conservative People’s Party and his political allies.

The scandal began in 2019 when a secret video filmed on the Spanish island of Ibiza showed Kurz’s then-coalition partner, Heinz-Christian Strache, offering to provide political favors for money to a woman alleged to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.

The controversy promptly led to the collapse of Kurz’s coalition government, but his party later won early polls in September of that year and formed a coalition with the Greens.

But as anti-corruption investigators probed deeper, they uncovered a series of WhatsApp messages on the phone of one of the chancellor’s closest associates, Thomas Schmid, who had been appointed as head of a state holding company Österreichische Beteiligungs AG in 2018.

During a 2020 parliamentary inquiry, Kurz downplayed his involvement in Schmid’s appointment – but amid the ongoing investigation, Kurz resigned from his position as chancellor the following year.

The new charges this week center on his 2020 testimony: The WhatsApp messages and the testimony of Schmid – who has become an important witness – showed that Kurz was directly involved in the appointment, not just informed of it as he had said. They also showed a high level of cronyism, Politico said.

The former chancellor, who won office on promises to root out the cronyism that has long defined Austrian politics, insists he is innocent.

If found guilty, the former chancellor, who in 2017 became the world’s youngest head of government at the time, could face up to three years in prison. And that indictment may only be the first he will face.

Observers said the outcome would further damage the reputation of his People’s Party, which has been in power since 1987.

Still, questions remain about how successful any prosecution by Austria’s justice department will be because it has experienced a series of failures lately – not least, the acquittal of Strache in two bribery cases linked to the Ibiza affair.

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