Schüssel quits over TA scandal

One of the country’s most influential politicians of the past 20 years has stepped down.

Wolfgang Schüssel announced today (Mon) he decided to retire as member of the federal parliament (MP). The move comes after increasing pressure on the former chancellor in connection with alleged fraud and stock market value manipulation carried out by former managers of Telekom Austria (TA). The Republic of Austria holds a 28.4 per cent interest in the leading phone and mobile services provider which is currently headed by Hannes Ametsreiter.

Three former members of the coalition between Schüssel’s People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Freedom Party (ÖVP) – ex-ÖVP Interior Minister Ernst Strasser, former FPÖ Traffic Minister Hubert Gorbach and former FPÖ Infrastructure Minister Mathias Reichhold – are accused of receiving millions of Euros by TA decision-makers or lobbyists cooperating with the company.

Ex-FPÖ Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser is facing abuse of office investigations for his role in the controversial privatisation of real estate company BUWOG. Two businesspeople close to Grasser received a commission of nearly 10 million Euros for their involvement in the deal which took place in 2004, the same year the value of TA stocks was raised with the help of a Vienna-based broker to help almost 100 TA managers and staff to their bonuses.

Schüssel was Austrian chancellor between 2000 and 2007. His decision to team up with the FPÖ triggered sanctions by the European Union (EU) and street marches across Austria joined by tens of thousands. The coalition was agreed upon after Schüssel stressed ahead of the federal ballot his party would withdraw from governing responsibility if it plunged from second to third. The Social Democrats (SPÖ) won the election but suffered massive losses. The ÖVP also sustained a bitter defeat – and came third behind the prospering FPÖ of late right-wing spearhead Jörg Haider.

Many analysts claimed the FPÖ would have become number one had the ÖVP not agreed to team up with it in a coalition after months of fruitless talks with the Social Democrats and the Green Party. While some ÖVP officials welcomed Schüssel’s step, others took a critical stance towards his cooperation with the FPÖ due to the party’s disputed anti-immigration policies.

Schüssel fronted the ÖVP’s campaign in the vote of 2002 when the party became the strongest political force of the country ahead of the SPÖ. The ÖVP cooperated with the FPÖ until 2005 before teaming up with the new Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). The faction was founded by Haider and joined by many FPÖ members. Schüssel resigned as chancellor in 2007 after the SPÖ managed to get back on top in the general election of 2006. The SPÖ and the ÖVP have formed a federal government coalition ever since.

Schüssel made headlines by – according to several Austrian journalists – calling Hans Tietmayer a “real pig” during a press breakfast in Amsterdam in the Netherlands in 1997. Schüssel was Austrian foreign minister at that time while the insulted German economist acted as head of the Deutsche Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank. The former ÖVP boss, vice chancellor and chancellor allegedly also branded Danish government members as “idiots.”

Political rivals describe Schüssel as a clever but cold and arrogant negotiator. Austrian newspapers used to call him the “chancellor of silence” for his tendency of failing to comment on controversial subjects until discussions considering the topics eventually died off.

Schüssel explained today he decided to resign as MP to help juridical authorities to examine the TA controversies and other issues “without any political influence and prejudgements by the media.” The former chancellor admitted the step was a “difficult” one for him. He pointed out his party never applied any pressure to get him to retire. The Greens reacted by calling his resignation “long overdue” while the FPÖ suggested the move was an “indirect admittance of guilt.” The SPÖ and the BZÖ announced they expected to see Schüssel again in the witness stand of a possible parliamentary commission dealing with the shady occurrences at TA.

ÖVP boss and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger praised Schüssel for “reforming and modernising Austria against immense resistance.” At the same time, the Greens claimed he ignored hints that Grasser was entangled in corrupt activities “for years.” Schüssel pledged today he “never” noticed any of the possible fraudulent acts by fellow members of this team of ministers. “However, no one – including myself – can rule out an abuse of trust,” he added.

Schüssel also said he would not allow his decision to step down and reactions by political competitors to tarnish his legacy as ÖVP chief, economy minister, foreign minister, vice chancellor and chancellor. The conservative politician – who managed to become Austria’s first ÖVP chancellor in 30 years – claimed today Austria also managed to weather the most recent economic downturns thanks to reforms carried out when he was in charge. Those critical of Schüssel and his party have attacked him for orchestrating what is widely seen as the most drastic pension and health system cuts Austria has ever experienced.

Schüssel reportedly has no plans to withdraw from the supervisory board of RWE. The ex-chancellor receives up to 100,000 Euros from the German energy sector giant, according to the Austrian Greens. Schüssel became a member of the panel last year. The engagement was met with immense criticism in Austria as the Essen-based firm uses nuclear technology to produce electricity. There has never been an operating nuclear power plant on Austrian soil. The alpine country’s populace has always been rather critical towards the technology. Its safety has been put into question by a growing number of citizens and governments across Europe since last March when a tsunami seriously damaged a nuclear facility in Japan.

It has to be seen whether Schüssel’s resignation will have a direct effect on day to day politics in Austria. His party looks back on a tough time as it had to find a new chairman following the resignation of Josef Pröll in April. Pröll quit as vice chancellor, finance minister and party head for reasons of health. Spindelegger restructured his team of ministers when he took over as vice chancellor and party leader in the same month. The ÖVP has suffered a loss of confidence among Austrians in the past few months, according to polls conducted by the country’s leading public opinion research groups. The SPÖ’s share has remained relatively stable while the FPÖ is being given chances to become the strongest faction in the federal parliament in the next general election which is scheduled for 2013.