Video sting: Austrian far-right leader quits; coalition teeters

Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache addresses the media in Vienna, Saturday. — Reuters

VIENNA — Austria's vice chancellor and longtime far-right leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, said on Saturday he was stepping down over "catastrophic" video footage of him that threatened to bring down the right-wing coalition government.

Freedom Party (FPO) leader Strache was shown in the footage of as-yet unknown origin meeting a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch in 2017, shortly before the election that brought him to power.

In the footage published by German media on Friday evening, a week before European Parliament elections, he appears to offer to funnel contracts toward a company in exchange for political and financial support.

"It was dumb, it was irresponsible and it was a mistake," Strache told a news conference, fighting back tears as he asked his wife and others to forgive him. He maintained, however, that he had done nothing illegal and that it was a "targeted political assassination".

"In the cold light of day, my remarks were catastrophic and exceedingly embarrassing," he said about the video, in which he also referred to party financing rules and how to work around them, but also insisted on having to act legally.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is expected to make a statement later as speculation swirled about whether the damage would be limited to Strache or if Kurz would call a snap election only a year and a half after the coalition between his conservatives and the FPO was formed.

Kurz has repeatedly distanced himself from the FPO over lesser scandals, mostly ones involving party officials and anti-Semitism or racism, to protect his popularity.

In an at-times rambling defense of his behavior, he also apologized for flirting with the woman, whom he describes as attractive in the recording.

"It was typical alcohol-fueled macho behavior in which, yes, I also wanted to impress the attractive female host and I behaved like a bragging teenager," he said.

Strache said he would be replaced by Transport Minister Norbert Hofer, his deputy within the party who narrowly lost 2016's presidential election and is more popular than Strache.

"I do not in any circumstances want my wrong behavior to provide a pretext for the government to collapse," Strache said.

Opposition parties including the Social Democrats, the liberal Neos party and the Greens called for a snap election. A crowd of hundreds with left-wing placards and banners gathered on the square outside Kurz's office, chanting "Snap elections now!".

Kurz's coalition options are limited. Although his party remains in the lead in opinion polls it is still well short of a majority. The only party other than the FPO with enough seats to form a majority is the Social Democrats, with which Kurz has difficult relations.

Although he and the FPO share a hard line on immigration and he brought the far right into government, he has also been at pains to protect his image as a pro-European centrist, particularly abroad. — Reuters