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Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz is under investigation over claims that government money was used in a corrupt deal to ensure positive coverage in a tabloid newspaper, prosecutors announced Wednesday.
A statement from prosecutors said raids had been carried out in several locations, including two government ministries, as part of the probe, the latest legal headache for Kurz and his right-wing People's Party (OeVP).
Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel confirmed that a raid had taken place at his ministry, and Austrian media reported that the chancellery was also one of the locations targeted.
Prosecutors say that Kurz and nine other individuals, as well as three organisations, are under investigation over the affair.
The essence of the allegations is that between 2016 and 2018, "resources from the finance ministry were used to finance partially manipulated opinion polls that served an exclusively party political interest".
This correlates to the time period in which Kurz took over the leadership of the OeVP and led it into government at the helm of a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).
Prosecutors allege that "payments were made" to an unnamed media company in return for publishing these surveys.
Kurz said in a statement sent by his office to AFP that the allegations were "fabricated" and that the chat messages the case was based on had been "taken out of context".
He added he was confident his name would eventually be cleared.
The media outlet in question has been widely identified in Austrian media as the Oesterreich tabloid.
The group that runs Oesterreich put out a statement denying anything untoward in the commissioning or publication of its surveys.
- 'House of cards' -
Other OeVP politicians have leapt to Kurz's defence with party deputy general secretary Gabriela Schwarz saying Wednesday's raids were "for show".
OeVP MP Andreas Hanger went as far as to blame the probe on "left wing cells" in the prosecutors' office.
In a speech on Wednesday evening President Alexander Van der Bellen called on politicians to respect the independence of the judiciary and said ascribing political motives to prosecutors was to "step over the line in an unacceptable way".
He described Wednesday's events as "unusual and grave" but offered little further comment.
The latest allegations may put fresh strain on the OeVP's coalition with the Green party, which has already come under pressure from the fallout from an earlier scandal.
The 2019 "Ibiza-gate" affair led to the spectacular collapse of Kurz's previous government, a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe).
After ex-FPOe chief Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on camera appearing to offer public contracts in exchange for campaign help for the FPOe, investigators launched sprawling corruption inquiries.
Some of these have targeted high-ranking OeVP figures, including Bluemel.
Kurz was also put under investigation on suspicion of making false statements to a parliamentary committee on corruption, though he has not been charged.
The main opposition Social Democrats (SPOe) said Wednesday's raids showed the OeVP's "house of cards was noisily collapsing" and criticised Kurz's party for "discrediting the independent judiciary and attempting to stymie its investigations".
For the moment, prominent Green party politicians have remained circumspect over the latest allegations, which erupted just days after the government unveiled a carbon tax as part of its flagship "eco-social" overhaul of the tax system.
Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler told reporters that the raids had had no impact on the coalition's ability to govern.
He did, however, push back against the OeVP's characterisation of the raids as a show, point out that the warrants would have needed a judge's approval.