Disgraced Austria far-right ex-leader declines EU seat

Heinz-Christian Strache

Vienna — Austria's far-right former vice chancellor on Monday turned down a European Parliament seat, vowing to concentrate on clearing his name after the "Ibiza" video scandal that brought down the government.

Heinz-Christian Strache was exposed by the publication of hidden-camera footage last month in which he appeared to offer public contracts to a fake Russian backer in return for campaign help.

He resigned as vice chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) days before the European elections.

Despite the scandal, Strache won some 45,000 "preference votes" from his supporters in the May 26 elections, guaranteeing him a seat in the European Parliament.

He declined to accept the seat however, promising to return to politics only once he had cleared his name.

"A return to active politics can and should only happen after the background of the Ibiza video has been cleared up as much as possible," the 50-year-old said in a video message posted on his Facebook page.

The recording released last month was filmed in a luxury villa on the holiday island of Ibiza in 2017.

Its publication led to the break-up of the government coalition and to Sebastian Kurz from the conservative People's Party (OeVP) losing his chancellorship. Fresh national elections are due in September.

New FPOe leader Norbert Hofer welcomed Strache's decision to decline the seat as the "right" step, conforming to the wish of the party, which is part of a far-right alliance in the European Parliament.

It also comes just after the FPOe announced Strache's wife would run in the September 29 national elections. Strache and Hofer have denied there is any link between this development and Strache's announcement not to accept a seat.

Prosecutors confirmed last week that they are investigating Strache for breach of trust, which can carry a prison term of up to 10 years.

In the Ibiza video, Strache appears to suggest that donations to the FPOe could be channeled via a foundation linked to the party in order to avoid legal scrutiny.

Strache has denied any wrongdoing, describing what he said as "stupid" but insisting nothing came of it. — AFP