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Austrian Chancellor Kurz sees image dented as he faces investigations

Once hailed as a "wunderkind", Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has seen his carefully built image dented amid coronavirus fatigue and an investigation into whether he lied to a parliamentary committee on corruption.

sebastian-kurz-austria
Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wears a face mask as he arrives for a meeting with Bavaria's State Premier at the Bavarian State Chancellery in Munich, southern Germany, on May 11, 2021. Peter Kneffel / POOL / AFP

It should have been a good month for the 34-year-old conservative — who became the world’s youngest democratically elected leader when he first took
office in 2017 — with the lengthy virus lockdown easing.

But prosecutors announced on Wednesday that they are investigating Kurz for giving false testimony to a committee of lawmakers probing the “Ibiza-gate” scandal and other graft allegations.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Austria’s ‘Ibiza-gate’ video

If charged, Kurz would be the first chancellor to have to face court while in office in the small Alpine EU member state of some nine million people.

Kurz himself has dismissed the allegations, saying he expects to be charged but not to be found guilty and that he is refusing to step down, slamming what he says are efforts to unseat him.

“I have said nothing that is not truthful,” Kurz told a selected group of Austrian media outlets on Thursday.

‘Kiss’ emoticons
Kurz’s party’s approval ratings already dropped to around 30 percent last month compared to a high of close to 50 percent a year ago.

Austria largely managed to keep the virus at bay during the first wave last year, but has struggled in the third wave with a lockdown since last November.

The investigation compounds Kurz’s troubles as his party’s financing and other practices have also come under the spotlight in recent months.

“It’s the most severe crisis in his chancellorship,” political analyst Thomas Hofer told AFP, adding it has “distracted” from this month’s planned re-opening of restaurants and other leisure venues.

“For Sebastian Kurz, who has been spoiled with success for a long time, it is the most delicate phase of his career,” Die Presse daily wrote in an editorial on Friday.

The investigation announced on Wednesday pertains to statements Kurz gave to a committee of lawmakers last year, in which he denied having had any influence over the appointment of the head of the OeBAG state holding company, Thomas Schmid.

However, in recent months text messages between Kurz and Schmid have come to light, including one exchange where Kurz wrote: “You get everything you
want”, adding several “kiss” emoticons, to which Schmid replied: “I’m so happy :-))) I love my chancellor”.

If found guilty of lying under oath, Kurz could face up to three years in jail.

Kurz already had to step down as chancellor once, in 2019, when his one-and-a-half-year-old coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) fell apart because of the so-called “Ibiza-gate” scandal.

FPOe then leader and vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned after a secretly filmed video showed him in a luxury villa in Ibiza offering public contracts to a woman he thought was a Russian oligarch’s niece.

In the aftermath, Kurz lost a no-confidence vote in parliament and fresh elections were called, where he managed to secure a strengthened mandate as disillusioned far-right voters flocked to his People’s Party (OeVP).

‘No competitor’
But Kurz’s current junior coalition partner, the Greens, who campaigned on a transparency platform, have been at pains to defend him and his allies hit by allegations of wrongdoing.

In February, the home of OeVP finance minister and Kurz ally Gernot Blümel was raided as part of a probe into possible party financing offences.

READ ALSO: Austrian minister’s home raided in casino corruption probe

“You can see a very heated atmosphere in Austria right now,” Hofer said, adding the current investigation “increases pressure on the Greens a lot”.

On an international level, too, Kurz has frequently had run-ins with other EU leaders.

In the latest row in March, Kurz raised concerns about vaccine distribution within the bloc, saying there had been a lack of transparency surrounding deals between some EU states and vaccine manufacturers.

But analysts point out Kurz’s OeVP is still firmly ahead in the polls.

“Despite the investigations, he overall remains fairly popular as a chancellor,” said Julia Partheymüller of Vienna University’s Centre for Electoral Research.

Another analyst, Peter Hajek, said “on a national level, there is not really any outstanding competitor”.

He added that Kurz could rely on his communication and crisis management skills — at least for now.

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COVID-19

Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.

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