Austrians vote with conservatives in lead

Supporters wave Austrian flags as they attend an election rally of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe) in Vienna, Austria on September 27, 2019. (File/AFP)
Updated 29 September 2019

Austrians vote with conservatives in lead

  • The People’s Party (OeVP) led by 33-year-old Sebastian Kurz is predicted to win around 33 percent, up slightly from the last elections two years ago
  • The parliamentary elections were brought about by the “Ibiza-gate” corruption scandal that engulfed Kurz’s far-right coalition partner in May

VIENNA: Austrians voted Sunday, with the conservatives expected to win most seats but not a majority, forcing them into difficult coalition negotiations after a corruption scandal brought down their government formed with the far-right.

The People’s Party (OeVP) led by 33-year-old Sebastian Kurz is predicted to win around 33 percent, up slightly from the last elections two years ago but not enough to form a government on its own.

“We had too much chaos in the last months. We hope for something less chaotic,” one Vienna voter, Clara Heisinger, told AFP.

The parliamentary elections were brought about by the “Ibiza-gate” corruption scandal that engulfed Kurz’s far-right coalition partner in May, after just 18 months in government together.

Kurz has “nothing to win, but a lot to lose,” Die Presse daily warned in an editorial on Saturday. “Even with a nice plus on Sunday, it is more difficult for him than in 2017,” it said, adding there was no partner that quite suited any more.

With 6.4 million people eligible to vote, polling stations across the country opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT) and will close at 5:00 p.m. (1500 GMT) when the first projections are expected.

Analysts say “whizz-kid” Kurz could once again partner with the Freedom Party (FPOe) in a re-run of the coalition that has been touted by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and other nationalists as a model for all of Europe.

“We vote to decide in which direction we will go — that of Orban and the populists, or if we stay oriented toward Europe.... we decide if the corruption will go on,” Vienna voter Gabriel Steiner, 29, said.

Fresh allegations of wrong-doing have shaken the far-right FPOe over the past week. Prosecutors confirmed Thursday they were investigating Heinz-Christian Strache, who resigned as FPOe leader and vice-chancellor in May because of “Ibiza-gate,” over fraudulent party expense claims.

Kurz himself has also warned that left-leaning parties could gain more seats than predicted and then band together to form a coalition without him.

“If there is just a little shift... then there will be a majority against us,” Kurz told supporters at a final rally in Vienna on Saturday.

Unlike in 2017, the top voter concern is not immigration — a welcome topic for Kurz and his former far-right allies — but climate change.

“It’s an important vote for the climate. Past governments have done much too little,” Vienna voter Peter Litzlbauer, 26, said.

Tens of thousands of people marched Friday in Vienna and other Austrian cities to demand the government do more to fight climate change.

The protests were part of global demonstrations led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and the biggest yet in the Alpine country of 8.8 million inhabitants.

Against this backdrop, Austria’s Greens — who failed to get into parliament in 2017 in a shock result — look set to make the biggest inroads on Sunday.

They are tipped to garner 13 percent, up 10 percentage points from two years ago. It remains to be seen if Kurz, a former law student who has enjoyed a rapid ascent through the ranks in Austrian politics, tries to woo them and another small party, the liberal NEOs, to form a partnership.

Another option for Kurz could be to form a coalition with the Social Democrats (SPOe). With a predicted historic low of around 22 percent, the SPOe was neck and neck with the FPOe before as the country’s second strongest party before the latest graft allegations surfaced.

Since World War II, either the OeVP or SPOe have always governed, and for 44 years in total the two ruled together, but it was Kurz who ended their last partnership, leading to the 2017 polls.

He has also floated the idea of ruling in a minority government. But this would potentially continue political uncertainty and could even trigger another election.

Either way, negotiations between parties are expected to take months again. Ultimately, President Alexander Van der Bellen, a former Greens leader, will need to approve any government.

The OeVP-FPOe government imploded in May when two German media outlets published footage filmed secretly on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza, showing Strache appearing to offer public contracts in exchange for campaign help from a fake Russian backer.


Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

Updated 21 November 2019

Top diplomat implicates Trump in explosive impeachment testimony

  • Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky
  • Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much

WASHINGTON: A senior US diplomat directly implicated President Donald Trump Wednesday in a scheme to force Ukraine to probe a political rival, in bombshell testimony to a televised impeachment hearing.
Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, told lawmakers he followed the president’s orders in seeking a “quid pro quo” deal for Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden in exchange for a White House summit.
Sondland said Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani led the effort at Trump’s direction to pressure Ukraine President Volodymr Zelensky for the investigation and that top officials in the White House and State Department knew about it.
The unexpectedly damning testimony drew a sharp backlash from Trump who tweeted: “This Witch Hunt must end NOW. So bad for our Country!.”
Trump said he barely knew Sondland and had not spoken to him much, despite the senior diplomat having donated $1 million to his inauguration and testifying that he had spoken to the president some 20 times while ambassador.
Democrats said Sondland’s seven hours of testimony before the House Intelligence Committee had bolstered their case for Trump’s impeachment for what they have labeled “extortion.”
“Today’s testimony is among the most significant evidence to date,” said committee chairman Adam Schiff.
“It goes right to the heart of the issue of bribery as well as other potential high crimes or misdemeanors.”
A succession of Democrats hoping to win the nomination to take on Trump in next year’s election also said the testimony had strengthened the case for impeachment as the issue dominated the opening exchanges in their latest televised primary debate.
Sondland said Trump directed him and two other senior diplomats to work with Giuliani.
From early in the year, Giuliani mounted a pressure campaign on Zelensky’s government to investigate Biden over his son Hunter’s ties to a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, and to probe a conspiracy theory espoused by Trump that Ukraine helped Democrats against him in 2016. Biden is one of the favorites to challenge Trump in next year’s presidential election.
“Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election/DNC server and Burisma,” Sondland told the panel.
“Mr Giuliani’s requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky.”
Far from being a “rogue” operation outside normal US diplomatic channels, Sondland told the hearing top officials — including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — were kept constantly informed.
“We followed the president’s orders,” he said.
Like Trump a multimillionaire developer with a chain of high-end hotels, Sondland, who wore a $55,000 Breguet white gold watch to the hearing, fended off pressure from both Democrats and Republicans.
He had not implicated the president in earlier private testimony, when he answered scores of questions by saying he could “not remember.”
But subsequent testimony by other witnesses which had further implicated him in the Ukraine pressure scheme had jolted his memory, he said on Wednesday.
While he confirmed the linkage between the investigations and a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump, he would not attest to allegations that Trump froze $391 million in aid as well to Ukraine to add pressure on Ukraine.
“I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on an announcement” of the investigations, he said, contradicting testimony from two other diplomats.
In separate testimony, a Pentagon official appeared to undermine a key Republican defense in the impeachment battle, that Kiev did not even know until late August or even September about the July 18 aid freeze, rendering moot Democrats’ allegations that Trump had extorted Ukraine.
Laura Cooper, the Pentagon official in charge of Ukraine affairs, said Kiev voiced concern over a holdup in aid on July 25.
That was the same day that Trump told Zelensky in a phone call that he wanted a favor, asking for investigations into Biden specifically and the 2016 conspiracy theory.
“The Ukrainian embassy staff asked, ‘What is going on with Ukrainian security assistance?” she told the committee.
At the White House, Trump denied making the demand of Zelensky, citing Sondland’s own recall of their September 9 phone call on the Ukraine issue.
Reading from large-print notes, he said that he told Sonderland: “I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”
“If this were a prizefight, they’d stop it!” he said of the inquiry.
Speaking at the Democrats’ debate, Biden dodged a question on the role of his son but said the testimony had shown that “Donald Trump doesn’t want me to be the nominee.”
And Bernie Sanders, another of the frontrunners for the nomination, said Trump had been shown to be “not only a pathological liar” but also “the most corrupt president in the modern history of America.”