FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Austria's president said the first few days of September would be the best time to hold an early election after a covert video scandal shook up the country's politics and warned that the government needed to remain capable of taking part in important European Union decisions in the interim.
President Alexander Van der Bellen spoke Sunday after meeting with Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
Kurz called for a new election after the resignation Saturday of his vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, who apologized for his statements in a video where he was apparently offering government construction contracts to a purported Russian investor at a boozy gathering in Ibiza. The video from 2017 was published by two German media outlets.
After the scandal broke, Kurz decided not to continue the governing coalition between his center-right People's Party and Strache's anti-immigration Freedom Party, saying he was fed up with missteps by his coalition partner. Those have included a poem in a party newsletter comparing migrants to rats.
Van der Bellen said that before new elections, it was crucial for the government to remain "capable of taking action and a reliable partner in the European Union" since after the European Parliament elections, EU member countries will be discussing crucial decisions. Those include deciding on the next head of the European Commission to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker, whose term is coming to an end. To that end, Van der Bellen said he would hold talks with the designated Freedom Party head, Norbert Hofer, and with opposition leaders on how to proceed.
Pamela Rendi-Wagner, head of the opposition Social Democrats, said that three Freedom Party ministries — defense, interior and justice — should be filled with independent experts in the interim to the elections, the dpa news agency reported.
In the videos, Strache appeared to discuss ways to receive unreported campaign contributions and how the investor, purportedly the niece of a Russian oligarch, could buy a stake in a major Austrian newspaper and use it to support his party. The 49-year-old politician said he had been set up through illegal surveillance, but conceded his behavior had been "stupid, irresponsible and a mistake."
Van der Bellen said the video showed behavior "that is not Austria." He added that "everything must be done to restore trust in officeholders, in the representatives of the people."
Strache's resignation was a setback for populist and nationalist forces as Europe heads into the final days of campaigning for elections to the 751-seat European Parliament. Although the EU legislature has limited powers, the campaign has become a test of strength between populist movements seeking to curb immigration and return more powers to national governments from the EU on the one side, and on the other side mainstream center-right and center-left parties supporting the bloc as a force for cooperation among its 28 member countries.
The scandal also underlined concerns about Russian influence among European populist movements, in particular because the Freedom Party was in government and could influence legislation and policy.