Austria's ruling coalition soldiers on after fight to near-death

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Austria's Chancellor Kurz gives statement in Vienna
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By Francois Murphy and Alexandra Schwarz-Goerlich

VIENNA (Reuters) -Austria's ruling coalition soldiered on on Sunday after Chancellor Sebastian Kurz quit https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/austrias-kurz-says-stepping-down-chancellor-2021-10-09 to keep it alive, but a top newspaper likened his future role in parliament to Russian leader Vladimir Putin's stint as prime minister in name only.

Prosecutors placed Kurz and nine others under investigation https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/prosecutors-raid-austrian-conservatives-hq-fresh-headache-kurz-2021-10-06 last week on suspicion of corruption offences, as part of what they suspect is the use of public funds to produce manipulated polling and newspaper coverage favourable to Kurz.

Kurz denies wrongdoing, but text-message exchanges that are part of the investigation and have been published in Austrian media have already tarnished the 35-year-old's image.

The junior coalition party, the Greens, had demanded Kurz's head over the investigation, and his resignation announcement on Saturday evening satisfied them. He will, however, remain leader of his conservative party and become its top lawmaker, positions in which he can keep calling the shots in government.

Kurz's designated successor is Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, a career diplomat, relative political novice and close ally of Kurz's who has defended his hard line on immigration. Schallenberg is due to be sworn in on Monday.

"This tactical manoeuvre is reminiscent of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who gave way to Dmitry Medvedev only to take over again," influential tabloid daily Kronen Zeitung said in an analysis, adding that Kurz planned to leave the top job only for a limited time.

Putin, who had been president from 2000, was prime minister under Medvedev in 2008-2012 and then returned to the presidency. A leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from the time said Medvedev "plays Robin to Putin's Batman".

Kurz said he planned to fight the allegations against him but left open whether he intends to return as chancellor.

"We want to make it to the end of this parliament," the Greens' parliamentary leader Sigi Maurer told national broadcaster ORF, referring to the current five-year parliament that runs until 2024.

"I can rule out that he would come back as chancellor during this government term," she added.

It remains to be seen how badly the spat has damaged the coalition. Maurer said she hoped the coalition would return to "calmer waters".

Kurz has been undisputed within his party until now and was reappointed as its leader in August with 99.4% support.

"Sebastian Kurz is chancellor in the shadows," the leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, told a news conference on Saturday night, adding that Kurz would "continue to pull the strings".

HYPOCRISY

A star among Europe's conservatives, Kurz became one of the continent's youngest leaders in 2017 when he formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party that collapsed in scandal in 2019. Parliament sacked him but he won the snap election that followed and formed the current coalition.

Two central features of Kurz's campaigns have been what he calls a "new style" of politics that he says does not involve smearing opponents, and opposing the traditional centrist alliance between his party and the Social Democrats on the grounds that it has led to deadlock.

Austrian media on Friday reported a text message exchange from June 2016, when such a centrist coalition was in place and Kurz was foreign minister, showing Kurz and a party loyalist then at the Finance Ministry seeking to block a government daycare initiative so that the then government could not claim credit for it.

That kind of apparent hypocrisy - causing the deadlock he said he was fighting even when as party leader he ended that coalition in 2017 - could damage Kurz politically, and he said that with hindsight he would phrase some texts differently.

"Some of them are messages I would definitely not formulate that way again, but I am but a man with emotions and also with faults," Kurz said in his resignation announcement on Saturday.

Prosecutors say they suspect officials in the conservative-led Finance Ministry used state funds to pay for manipulated polling and coverage favourable to Kurz to appear in a newspaper as of 2016, when he was vying to become party leader.

Kurz says the accusations against him are false and many of the allegations involve possible crimes by others, not him.

(Writing by Francois MurphyEditing by Frances Kerry, William Maclean)

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