Anti-corruption investigators seeking materials for a probe on Wednesday searched the offices of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his ruling conservative Austrian People's Party (OeVP) as well as the Ministry of Finance and a media house.
They searched for emails dating back to the beginning of 2016 as well as data storage devices, servers, mobile phones and laptops.
Kurz and some of his inner circle - such as a press spokesperson, his media advisor and his chief strategist - were affected by the search on the suspicion they used criminal methods on their way to power.
The Economic and Corruption Prosecutor's Office (WKSTA) led the investigations.
According to investigators there are indications that, from April 2016 onwards, funds from the Ministry of Finance were used to publish "exclusively party-politically motivated, sometimes manipulated polls by an opinion research company" in the interest of Kurz, who was then foreign minister.
In addition, payments were allegedly made to a media house - as "covert trade-offs for the opportunities actually granted to the accused to influence editorial reporting in this media company."
Kurz: 'accusations false'
Kurz said any suspicion of corruption related to his rise to power was unfounded. "I am convinced that these accusations will also soon turn out to be false," the conservative politician told the broadcaster ORF.
He accused investigators of taking chat messages out of context or misrepresenting them. "And then a criminal accusation is created around it."
In further comments to ORF Wednesday evening, Kurz said there was no indication of his personal involvement in, for example, commissioning polls favourable to him or placing ads.
"All of the allegations are against employees of the Ministry of Finance," he said.
He also said it was absurd to say polls had been manipulated in his favour as dozens of polls in the 2016 period in question produced very similar results for parties and politicians.
Kurz ruled out the possibility he would resign.
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen called the searches an unusual and very serious procedure.
The OeVP and the media company vehemently denied the allegations.
"At no time was there an agreement between the OESTERREICH media group and the Ministry of Finance about payment for surveys through advertisements," the media group said.
In a statement, Gabriela Schwarz, OeVP deputy secretary general, said the accusations were false and aimed at damaging Kurz and the party.
She said the investigators were obviously interested in "theatrics."
"We will oppose this with all our strength, both on the political and on the legal level," OeVP parliamentary leader August Woeginger said.
According to the public prosecutor's office, the funds, amounting to more than 1 million euros (1.15 million dollars), are said to have flowed from the budget of the Finance Ministry in the process of Kurz seeking to take over the OeVP.
In 2017, he won a power struggle with OeVP party leader Reinhold Mitterlehner and became chancellor of a coalition between the OeVP and far-right FPOe in December 2017.
The cooperation between the chancellery and the media house is said to have continued even after that.
"I've never really gone as far as we have. Brilliant investment ... He who pays creates. I love it," reads a chat message from a Kurz confidant in the Finance Ministry, after the desired coverage was once again placed, according to investigation documents. On the same day, Kurz is said to have thanked the sender: "Thanks for Austria today!"
The development could mark the beginning of a government crisis. The Greens, as partners of the OeVP in the coalition since January 2020, had always stressed that they would only be party to "clean politics."
The alliance has been repeatedly strained, in part by OeVP accusations against the judiciary.
On Tuesday, OeVP member Andreas Hanger had spoken of "left-wing cells" within the WKSTA prosecutor's office that wanted to damage Kurz's reputation.
The coalition partners, who according to their own credo wanted to combine the best of both worlds, have had to survive difficult moments again and again.
Most recently, the Greens pleaded for at least humanitarian gestures on the refugee issue, such as in the current Afghanistan crisis. The OeVP under Kurz, on the other hand, has relied entirely on its tough anti-migration stance, which was supported by many citizens.
The opposition sees the investigations as confirmation of suspected corruption in Kurz's entourage.
"Things are getting tighter for Kurz and the [OeVP] family," the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPOe) commented. "The ... house of cards is crashing down," said SPOe federal manager Christian Deutsch.
According to the far-right FPOe, former coalition partners with the OeVP until a scandal broke them apart in 2019, "the OeVP leadership has increasingly turned into a criminal organization in recent years."
The OeVP is above all concerned with power, the secretary general of the liberal Neos party, Douglas Hoyos criticized. He called on the chancellor's party to clarify the case instead of damaging the reputation of the judiciary.