Austrian president calls for September poll in wake of scandal

Vienna (AFP) - Austria's president on Sunday called for fresh elections in September after a corruption scandal embroiling the far-right brought down the coalition government in spectacular fashion.

Just days before key EU elections, Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was forced to resign in disgrace Saturday following explosive revelations from a hidden camera sting.

Conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz -- whose 18-month coalition with Strache's far-right Freedom Party (FPOe) had been held up as a model by many on the European right -- reacted by pulling the plug on their union.

"My preference is for early elections in September, if possible the beginning of September," President Alexander Van der Bellen told journalists on Sunday after meeting Kurz.

Van der Bellen will hold further talks with other party leaders to fix a date, setting the scene for months of campaigning.

The dramatic developments followed the publication by two German newspapers on Friday of footage from a sophisticated hidden-camera sting months before Austria's last parliamentary elections in 2017.

In the recordings -- of unknown provenance -- Strache is seen talking to a woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.

The pair discuss how she could gain control of the country's largest-circulation tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung, and install editorial staff who would help the FPOe's 2017 election campaign.

In return, Strache held out the possibility of awarding public contracts.

Elsewhere in the footage, he discusses remodelling Austria's media landscape to more closely resemble that of Viktor Orban's Hungary, and appears to hint at ways political donations could escape legal scrutiny.

- 'Enough is enough' -

Kurz said Saturday the latest revelations were the final straw after a string of FPOe-related scandals dogging the government.

"Enough is enough," he told a press conference in Vienna on Saturday, estimated to have been watched by more than two million people -- nearly a quarter of the country's population.

Strache for his part admitted in his emotional resignation statement that he had been "stupid" and "irresponsible", but also sought to portray himself as the victim of a "targeted political attack".

Controversial FPOe Interior Minister Herbert Kickl posted a defiant statement on Facebook Sunday blaming Kurz for the coalition's collapse.

"We are ready for this confrontation," Kickl said.

The opposition has demanded that Kickl and all other FPOe ministers be fired immediately but neither Van der Bellen nor Kurz commented on whether they would be allowed to stay, nor on who would replace the vice-chancellor.

Senior FPOe officials met amid high secrecy on Sunday and nominated Infrastructure Minister Norbert Hofer as the party's next leader.

On Sunday thousands of demonstrators took to the streets for a planned pro-EU protest in Vienna, a day after the revelations prompted spontaneous protests.

Sunday's gathering also had a strong anti-government flavour, with many using anti-Kurz and anti-FPOe slogans.

Meanwhile a Russian senator on Sunday rejected any possible implication of Moscow in the affair.

"You cannot draw a Russian link to this clearly ugly incident," said ruling party senator Oleg Morozov.

- Politicians 'for sale' -

The turmoil in Vienna will reignite debate on the European centre-right about the pitfalls of cooperation with the far-right ahead of next week's EU elections, in which populist parties are expected to gain ground.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted to the scandal by warning of the dangers of far-right politicians "for sale", who wanted to "destroy the Europe of our values".

The possibility of any future coalition between Kurz's People's Party (OeVP) and the FPOe is already stirring controversy in the OeVP leadership. The party's lead candidate for the European elections Othmar Karas has spoken out against the idea.

The scandal may also dent the prospects of the far-right populist alliance marshalled by Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, in which the FPOe plays a key part.

Observers said the dramatic events of the past two days were almost a re-run of the last time that the OeVP and FPOe went into coalition, in 2000.

Then as now, after only two years the OeVP chancellor -- in that case Wolfgang Schuessel -- felt compelled to call snap elections due to divisions with his FPOe coalition partner.

In 2002, the OeVP emerged strengthened from the elections, but it remains to be seen if Kurz can avoid damage from the fallout.

Kurz said on Saturday that he had found the string of FPOe-related scandals "difficult to swallow".

But Pamela Rendi-Wagner, leader of the opposition Social Democrats (SPOe) said on Sunday Kurz "bears full responsibility for the failure of this... experiment.

"He was the one who, out of pure selfishness, made Strache vice-chancellor and plunged the country into this deep crisis," she said.