Austria’s far-right FPOe party was under pressure Friday after fresh allegations of fraudulent expense claims against its former leader surfaced just ahead of key parliamentary polls at the weekend.
Heinz-Christian Strache, former vice-chancellor and Freedom Party head, was forced to step down in May as corruption allegations sank him and the coalition government led by center-right Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.
Now Strache faces renewed suspicions – this time that he abused his party’s expense account for his own purposes.
Kurz’s People’s Party (OeVP) is widely expected to gain most votes again in Sunday’s vote but not enough to form a majority government on its own.
In that case, analysts say Kurz, 33, would likely seek to renew the coalition with the FPOe which collapsed in May. But that just got more difficult as Strache struggles with the latest allegations which have also snagged the party’s new leader.
Norbert Hofer, who took over from Strache after the “Ibiza-gate” graft scandal surfaced, vowed “full transparency” during a final television debate with all the parties’ top candidates late Thursday.
“I’m not one to deal gently with things if it’s necessary,” Hofer said when asked about the allegations against his former boss.
Staunchly anti-immigrant, the FPOe has seen a surge in popularity in recent years as its leaders have increasingly drawn on Islamophobic sentiments for support.
Austrian media headlines on Friday focused on the issue as the bad press against the still influential Strache stoked fears in the FPOe that voters could stay away from the polls on Sunday as a result.
“War about expenses … sparks fly in the party now,” the Oesterreich tabloid wrote on its front page.
Prosecutors confirmed Thursday they were investigating Strache’s expenses and had questioned his former bodyguard and his former office manager “on the suspicion … of submitting fake receipts” costing the party more than 5,000 euro ($5,500).
Hofer has also been drawn into the controversy after Oesterreich reported that the party had paid for a garden fence at his private property.
The FPOe defended that expense, saying it was done for “safety reasons” when Hofer ran in presidential elections in 2016.
Hofer is aiming to win 20 percent of the vote, in line with opinion polls, down from the 26 percent the party got in the last parliamentary polls in 2017 and putting it neck-and-neck with the Social Democrats (SPOe).
The latest scandal has hit the high profile Strache, who led the FPOe for 14 years and remains influential with 800,000 followers on his Facebook page, and stoked talk of turmoil within the party.
Strache has dismissed all allegations against him as politically-motivated attacks.
The FPOe’s troubles began in May when footage filmed secretly on the Spanish resort island of Ibiza before the last parliamentary elections in 2017 showed Strache appearing to offer public contracts in exchange for campaign help to a fake Russian backer.