Austria’s former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who has dominated his centre-right People’s party (ÖVP) and his country’s political life for the past five years, has unexpectedly announced he is leaving politics.
Slick, suave and long seen as a political wunderkind, Kurz became one of the world’s youngest democratically elected heads of government at 31 in 2017, but resigned as chancellor in October after being placed under investigation on suspicion of corruption.
On Thursday he stepped down from his remaining posts as head of the ÖVP and parliamentary group leader, saying he had decided to quit politics in order to focus on his family life. He recently became a father.
He pushed back strongly against public and media criticism and the allegations of corruption. “As chancellor you have so many decisions you have to make every day that you know early on that you will also make wrong decisions,” he said.
Describing himself as “neither a saint nor a criminal”, he added in an unusually long statement: “You’re always under observation. You also constantly have the feeling you’re being hunted.”
Kurz stepped down as chancellor under strong pressure from his coalition partner, the Greens, after anti-corruption investigators searched offices at the chancellery, the finance ministry, his party headquarters and a powerful publisher.
Prosecutors suspect that a network of conservative politicians around Kurz used funds from the finance ministry’s public purse to buy favourable newspaper coverage and to “finance partially manipulated opinion polls” to boost his and the ÖVP’s image.
The tabloid Österreich has denied it guaranteed favourable coverage of Kurz and his party in exchange for taxpayers’ money, but it was reportedly paid €1.33m (£1.13m) for advertisements placed by the finance ministry over the past two years alone.
Prosecutors say Kurz, who is under investigation on suspicion of giving false statements and breach of public trust, has denied any wrongdoing. Nine other individuals close to the former chancellor, as well as three organisations, are also under investigation, suspected of varying degrees of corruption and bribery.
Kurz’s fall from grace has been as swift as was his rise. State secretary for integration at 24 and foreign minister at 27, he became ÖVP leader in May 2017 and chancellor six months later, and rebuilt the party around him.
He entered into a power-sharing agreement with the xenophobic far-right Freedom party in his first term, a coalition that collapsed in 2019 when the populist party became engulfed in a different corruption scandal.
Kurz said in his resignation statement that the accusations had hindered his ability to work, requiring him to spend his last months in office “defending [myself] against accusations and proceedings, and no longer competing for the best ideas”.
His successor as chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg, a career diplomat, had been widely considered a placeholder until Kurz could clear his name and return to office. The interior minister, Karl Nehammer, will succeed Kurz as party chair.