The crisis engulfing Austria’s government deepened after Thomas Schmid — the official at the centre of a sprawling, multiyear probe into corruption — outraged lawmakers by refusing to answer questions at a parliamentary committee, triggering contempt proceedings against him.
Opposition parties united in condemnation of Schmid, a key ally of former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and promised to use minority parliamentary privileges to extend an already highly damaging graft investigation into the ruling conservative Austrian People’s party (ÖVP).
With opposition politicians calling for a new election, public anger over corruption is denting support for Austria’s governing coalition and boosting the standing of the hard-right, populist Freedom party (FPÖ) in the wealthy EU member state.
“This is the darkest day of Austrian parliamentarianism,” said Christian Hafenecker, general secretary of the FPÖ, on Thursday. The party is second in polls, 2 percentage points behind the Social Democrats.
Interest in the investigation increased when it emerged last month that Schmid, a former top civil servant and Kurz’s political confidante, had become a crown witness at the judicial probe into alleged corruption by dozens of politicians and officials linked to the former chancellor’s two terms.
Parliamentarians have been attempting to interrogate Schmid themselves, using legal powers at their disposal to compel him to appear — for nearly a year, ever since the former finance ministry chief and head of a state holding company first made the headlines.
Last October, thousands of messages from Schmid’s phone were leaked from the judicial probe by the state economic crime and corruption prosecutor (WKStA) into his activities, blowing the lid on the ongoing investigation into Kurz’s rise to power. The disclosures forced Kurz to resign.
Chancellor Karl Nehammer has sought to distance himself from the WKStA probe, but as prosecutors gather more evidence — and opposition parties use the privileges of the special parliamentary investigative committee to obtain and publicise it — his room for manoeuvre is shrinking. He is relying on ongoing support from the Greens, his junior coalition partner.
“We are going to close all the loopholes and back doors,” said Stephanie Krisper, Liberal MP and member of the investigative committee. “We need a total overhaul.”
Opposition lawmakers had been preparing for revelatory comments from Schmid’s public testimony in front of the parliamentary committee, while the ÖVP hoped to use the hearing, at which Schmid was under oath, to highlight the lack of evidence for his accusations against the party.
On Wednesday motions were tabled in an emergency sitting of Austria’s parliament to topple the current government with new elections and to remove the speaker of the house. The ÖVP has haemorrhaged support in the past year: two years ago 41 per cent of Austrians said they would vote for the party, a proportion that has since halved.
On Thursday morning, hundreds of journalists, politicians and members of the public gathered at the Hofburg, the former seat of the Habsburg monarchy, as Schmid arrived with his lawyer to appear before the investigative committee.
But the 46-year-old left after two hours, having declined to answer almost all of the questions from the cross-party panel interrogating him.
The ÖVP told reporters that Schmid was a “liar” and said his refusal to testify at the committee proved the allegations he has made to prosecutors were false.
Schmid’s lawyer said in a statement that his client could not testify to parliamentarians because of the ongoing judicial investigation into him.
“Despite manifold, interest-driven, personal and dishonest accusations against him, [my client] will continue on a path of co-operation with the criminal prosecution authorities,” he said.
Kurz was forced from the chancellery as a result of disclosures about the WKStA investigation. He is separately facing criminal charges from the WKStA for misleading the committee.