Austrian Vice Chancellor Resigns

Austrian Vice Chancellor Resigns

VIENNA (AP) -- Austrian vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned Saturday after two German newspapers published footage of him apparently offering lucrative government contracts to a potential Russian benefactor.

Standing before journalists and TV cameras, Strache said he was illegally set up in a "political assassination" but added that his behavior in the video was "stupid, irresponsible and a mistake."

The scandal has led to speculation about the future of Austria's governing coalition between Strache's anti-immigration Freedom Party and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's center-right People's Party. Kurz was reportedly planning to issue a statement later Saturday. Among his options, he could replace Strache in the cabinet with another party member or end the coalition and call a new election.

In his resignation statement, Strache said he was quitting so the coalition could continue its work.

The scandal has wider resonance against a Europe-wide debate over immigration and populism and comes only a few days before elections in 28 European Union nations for lawmakers to the 751-seat European parliament.

Strache's Freedom Party's platform says "Austria is not a country of immigration" and cites "cultural Christianity" as one of the country's social pillars.

The EU elections taking place May 23-26 are seen as a forum by both sides in Europe's broad argument over immigration and democracy in the wake of the 2015 influx of migrants and asylum seekers from violence in the Middle East.

On one side of the debate are nationalist, anti-immigrant movements critical of the EU such as Germany's Alternative for Germany and France's far-right National Rally led by Marine Le Pen.

Pro-European movements such as mainstream center-right and center-left parties see the vote as a chance to reject populism and support European cooperation and integration.

The daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the weekly Der Spiegel on Friday published extracts of a covert video purportedly showing Strache offering government contracts to a Russian woman allegedly interested in investing large amounts of money in Austria.

In the video, the source of which the newspapers declined to reveal, Strache and party colleague Johann Gudenus are heard telling the unnamed woman she could expect lucrative construction contracts if she buys an Austrian newspaper and supports the Freedom Party.

Sueddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel said the footage was authenticated by a forensic video expert. It couldn't be immediately independently verified by The Associated Press.

According to the two newspapers, the video spanned some six hours of drink-fueled conversation in a villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza between the Austrian politicians and the woman, who claimed to be the niece of a prominent Russian businessman.

Aside from discussing possible investments in Austria, including the purchase of influential tabloid newspaper Kronen Zeitung, Strache also appears to suggest ways of funneling money to his party via an unconnected foundation to circumvent Austrian rules on political donations.

Strache announced his resignation to journalists without taking questions Saturday. He said that he had had no further contact with the woman and she gave no contributions to the party.

(KA)