Austria’s new Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg pledged on Monday to work closely with his predecessor Sebastian Kurz, who quit in the face of corruption allegations, fueling opposition assertions that the new leader will simply do Kurz’s bidding.
The Greens, the junior partner to Kurz’s conservatives, had demanded Kurz’s head after he and nine others including senior aides were placed under investigation last week on suspicion of varying degrees of breach of trust, corruption and bribery.
Kurz, who denies wrongdoing, has been the undisputed leader of his party until now and is taking on an additional role as his party’s top lawmaker in parliament. His opponents say he will continue to control policy from those positions and act as “chancellor in the shadows.”
“I believe the accusations that have been made (against Kurz) are false and I am convinced that at the end of the day it will turn out that there was nothing to them,” Schallenberg, a career diplomat who has become a close Kurz ally, said in a statement to media.
“I will of course work very closely… with Sebastian Kurz,” he said in his first public pronouncement after moving from his position as foreign minister.
Schallenberg said he wanted to provide “responsibility and stability” but his remarks did little to appease the opposition.
“My impression is that he intends to do exactly that: go back to business as usual and act as if nothing happened,” the leader of the liberal Neos party, Beate Meinl-Reisinger, calling on Schallenberg to actively fight corruption.
Pulling the strings
Kurz also pushed back against opposition criticism.
“I am not a chancellor in the shadows,” he said on Twitter, pledging to support the government in its work.
Anti-corruption prosecutors say they suspect conservative officials in the Finance Ministry used state funds to pay for manipulated polling and coverage favorable to Kurz to appear in a newspaper starting in 2016, when Kurz was seeking to become party leader. He succeeded and won a parliamentary election the next year with pledges to take a hard line on immigration.
Critics accuse Kurz of overseeing a system or network that flouted rules on issues like party funding and appointments to state jobs in pursuit of power for him and allies. Kurz, who is under investigation separately for perjury, says all accusations are false.
“All opposition parties agree there is no change to the Kurz system. He still has all the strings in his hands and designated Chancellor Schallenberg is part of this Kurz system,” Kai Jan Krainer of the Social Democrats, who was on a parliamentary commission of inquiry that looked into possible corruption under a previous Kurz government, told ORF radio.
At Schallenberg’s swearing-in, President Alexander Van der Bellen said public trust in political institutions had been badly damaged by the investigation and text-messages it revealed that appeared to show Kurz and his allies acting cynically behind the scenes.
“The rearranged government now has a great responsibility not just to successfully continue this government’s projects but also responsibility for restoring the public’s trust in politics,” Van der Bellen said in his speech.
In some of the text-message exchanges, widely reported by Austrian media, Kurz calls a rival an “ass” and appears to instigate coalition deadlock, which he said he wanted to prevent. He expressed regret at the wording of some texts in his resignation speech on Saturday.