Austria’s Ex-Wunderkind Sebastian Kurz Tried for Perjury

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(Bloomberg) -- Austria’s former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz faced perjury charges on Wednesday in a trial set to rake over events that triggered the political downfall of Europe’s then-youngest leader and a rising star on the center-right.

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Prosecutors allege Kurz, now 37, lied under oath to a parliamentary inquiry into a 2019 scandal that brought down his government. If convicted, he could be sentenced to as long as three years in prison.

The trial is a result of the “interplay between politics and the prosecution,” Kurz said on his way to the courtroom, adding that he denies the charge and expects to be exonerated. The judge in Vienna’s Regional Criminal Court has scheduled three days of hearings.

Austrian prosecutors have a long history of going after politicians for alleged misdeeds. Former Chancellor Fred Sinowatz was found guilty and fined for giving false testimony three decades ago. In subsequent years more than a dozen government ministers have been tried. Most recently, Austria’s former finance chief, Karl-Heinz Grasser, was found guilty of corruption after more than a decade of legal battles.

“The fate of Kurz is of international significance because he was a poster boy of the center-right in Europe, a wayfarer in showing that softly populist politics with a core of slick communications and marketing may capture voters from both the center and far-right,” said Marcus How, a political-risk analyst at VE Insight. “Few politicians are as polarizing.”

At issue are statements delivered by Kurz under oath to parliamentarians investigating a secret video filmed on the Spanish island of Ibiza, purporting to show Kurz’s coalition partner peddling influence to a woman claiming relation to a Russian oligarch. The incident toppled the government and led to thousands of WhatsApp messages being made public following raids of government officials by investigators.

Prosecutors allege private messages show Kurz personally made key hiring decisions at Austria’s state-assets agency while he claimed before the parliamentary committee that he kept the business at arm’s length. Austria’s so-called Freunderlwirtschaft, or friendship economy, in which parties grant sinecures to loyalists, has long been a controversial feature of national politics and Kurz rose to power by promising to end the practice.

The reason prosecutors suspect Kurz lied to parliament is because he didn’t want to damage his reputation and risk his political career, they said, adding they possess a “ring of evidence” proving the former chancellor misled the parliamentary inquiry.

“Kurz has arguably become a scapegoat for practices in which all major parties engaged,” How said. “But the stench of hypocrisy is overpowering nonetheless, given that Kurz had specifically campaigned to end the friendship-economy and modernize the way the country operates.”

Since leaving politics, Kurz has become a global strategist for Thiel Capital, the investment firm run by billionaire Trump donor Peter Thiel, and has participated in social media campaigns to persuade the Austrian public that he is the victim of an elaborate set-up.

Prosecutors are still investigating suspicions that Kurz fueled disinformation by using public money to plant fabricated opinion polls in Austria’s tabloid media before he took office.

--With assistance from Boris Groendahl.

(Adds Kurz comments in the third paragraph, prosecutor in the eighth)

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