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Austrian leader calls for early election after his vice chancellor resigns amid corruption scandal

VIENNA — Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called for an early election after his vice chancellor resigned Saturday over a covertly shot video that showed him apparently promising government contracts to a purported Russian investor.

Kurz said he would ask President Alexander Van der Bellen to set a date for a new election “as soon as possible.”

Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache resigned after two German publications, the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung and the weekly Der Spiegel, on Friday published extracts of a covert video purportedly showing Strache offering Austrian government contracts to a Russian woman who was allegedly interested in investing large amounts of money in Austria.

Austrian Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache addresses the media in Vienna, Austria, May 18, 2019. Photo By Leonhard Foeger/Reuters

Strache’s far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom Party is the smaller partner in Austria’s ruling government coalition with Kurz’s People’s Party. At a news conference late Saturday, Kurz said talks with remaining officials from the Freedom Party showed they were not willing to make the changes Kurz felt necessary to continue the current coalition.

Kurz also said a possible coalition with the center-left Social Democrats would derail the government’s program of limiting debt and taxes.

Strache’s resignation was a black eye for the populist and nationalist forces who favor tighter European immigration policies. It came only a few days before the May 23-26 elections in 28 European Union nations to fill the European Parliament.

In his resignation statement earlier Saturday, Strache apologized but said he was set up in a “political assassination.” He conceded his behavior in the video was “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake.”

In the video, the source of which the publications declined to reveal, Strache and party colleague Johann Gudenus are heard telling the unnamed woman she could expect lucrative construction work if she bought Austria’s Kronen Zeitung newspaper and supported the Freedom Party. The video spanned 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.

The 49-year-old politician said he had been in a state of “increasing alcohol intoxication” and had “behaved like a teenager” in an attempt to “impress the attractive host.” He said he had had no further contact with the woman and she did not donate to his party. He claimed to be a victim of the illegal use of surveillance equipment.