Austria’s coalition government falls after supposed corruption setup

There remain more questions than answers as details unfold regarding the supposed corruption that led to the resignation of Austria’s Vice Chancellor and Freedom Party (FPO) leader Heinz-Christian Strache and coalition government Chancellor and People’s Party (OVP) leader Sebastian Kurz calling for early elections. After Chancellor Kurz fired FPO Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, the remaining FPO ministers collectively resigned. Russia’s Kremlin denied its involvement, saying that “it doesn’t have anything to do with us and can’t have anything to do with us”.

One week ago, a video released by two left-wing German news media outlets, Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung, appear to show Mr. Strache and colleague Johann Gudenus (who has since resigned from his elected position) on the island of Ibiza apparently offering lucrative government contracts to a prospective Russian investor in exchange for help influencing Austria's 2017 elections in favor of his party by purchasing Austrian news outlet Kronen-Zeitung.

Mr. Strache fell for the elaborate trap, which took place on an evening in July 2017, complete with the Mercedes Maybach and BMW M4 sports car. It was secretly filmed, in what seems to have been an intricately prepared and well-funded sting operation. Süddeutsche Zeitung said hidden cameras and microphones were installed in light switches and in a mobile phone-charging station at the villa. The microphones "recorded almost every word spoken" during the meeting which lasted almost seven hours, the paper said.

Mr. Strache resigned a day after the video was released and the governing coalition of OVP and FPO fell apart. Mr. Strache has acknowledged that the video was “catastrophic” but denies breaking the law and described the set up as a “political hit job” ahead of this weekend’s European Parliament elections, where nationalist parties such as his are poised to gain significant ground. In his resignation speech, Mr. Strache said the video was "a honey trap, directed by intelligence agencies". Mr. Gudenus issued a statement alleging he may have been drugged, claiming to have significant memory gaps and "I was a willing and compliant victim, who some one perhaps made docile with knock-out drops or some other drug."

On Thursday, Iranian-born lawyer from Vienna, Ramin Mirfakhrai, admitted at least partial responsibility for what took place in a press release from his lawyer Richard Soyer, which states (translation), "It was a civic motivated project in which investigative journalistic paths were taken,” only "democratic-political and legal considerations" were relevant in the publication, and "Due to the reactions of the politicians concerned, a self-dynamic unfolded as a result.”

Mr. Mirfakhrai is fluent in Persian, German, and English and runs several beauty parlors together with former Miss Austria beauty queen Katia Wagner. Mr. Mirfakhrai had established contact with Mr. Gudenus under the pretext of having potential buyers for his hunting property, and then between the FPO and Alyona Makarova, the wealthy niece of the Russian oligarch Igor Makarov – who does not have a niece. Early meetings leading up the Ibiza included Mr. Mirfakhrai’s lawyer and a Munich middleman named Julian H. who maintains a private detective agency in Munich and is also registered in Vienna.

On Friday, Mr. Strache filed a complaint against three "possible accomplices", announced in the newspaper Krone as his team works to identify those responsible for the video and said (translation), "I became an actor in a staged conversation situation against me. I have articulated in this situation mind games that were stupid and overall on the political floor."

Additionally, German satirist Jan Böhmermann, who causes international uproar with his abrasive comedy, said back in April that he was familiar with the video when he told an award ceremony via video link that he couldn’t attend as he was busy “discussing with a couple of FPO men in an Ibiza villa how I can take over the Krone newspaper”.

Chancellor Kurz filled the four ministerial vacancies left by the FPO by appointing unelected civil servants, who include a former Supreme Court president and two people with ties to the SPO. His election call, which may take place in September, appeared to defy President Alexander Van der Bellen, who has the power to dismiss governments and dissolve parliament; on Tuesday night Mr. Van der Bellen told political leaders to put country before party and said, “Now is not the time for campaign speeches.”

Chancellor Kurz must now form a minority caretaker government since his party holds only 62 seats out of 183 in parliament. “The emphasis is on a transitional government,” said President Van der Bellen, emphasising that the caretaker administration would be expected not to implement major new legislation or government spending.