Friday

20th Sep 2019

Strache scandal: how big a hit will Austrian far-right take?

  • Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (left), fari-right deputy chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (centre), and Jean-Claude Juncker (right), pictured together in Austria last year, before the scandal broke that brought down the Austrian government (Photo: European Commission)

This week has seen a political crisis unprecedented in Austria since the end of the Second World War.

The resignation of vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the firing of the far-right interior minister Herbert Kickl, the mass resignation of all other far-right ministers, a call for a snap election in September, the inauguration of an interim expert government, and a no-confidence vote in the Austrian parliament scheduled for Monday.

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  • Hans-Christian Strache quit in tears on Monday - but his party so far only appears to have lost five percent (Photo: HC Strache)

Against the background of this incredible chaos, like the rest of the EU, Austrian voters go to the polls this weekend to pick their MEPs for the next five-year term of the European Parliament, with the most recent polls showing chancellor Sebestian Kurz emerging relatively unscathed - but the nationalist-populist Austrian Freedom Part of Strache badly hit, and unlikely to make its target of five seats.

The original news came as a bombshell last Friday evening, just before the start of the weekend.

The Ibiza video

A secretly-filmed video emerged that showed Heinz-Christian Strache, deputy chancellor and leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPO), discussing trading government contracts for campaign support with a woman posing to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.

Explosive excerpts of the seven-hour footage show Strache smoking and drinking together with his fellow party member Johann Gudenus in a villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza.

In the video - that was filmed two years ago - Strache also appears to suggest to the purported Russian millionaire to buy Austria's largest tabloid newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, so that it could be turned into a mouthpiece for the far-right.

The recordings appear to have been a deliberate trap. While it remains unclear who originally ordered the video, there is now growing evidence that a prominent Viennese lawyer is implicated in providing contacts.

In a statement, Strache denied any legal wrongdoing but admitted his actions were "stupid, irresponsible and a mistake".

What followed was a political crisis unprecedented in Austria since the end of the Second World War: Resignation of Vice-Chancellor Strache, firing of the far-right Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, mass resignation of all other FPO ministers, call for a snap election in September, inauguration of an interim expert government, and a no-confidence vote in the Austrian parliament scheduled for Monday.

No-confidence vote?

The no-confidence vote was initiated by the smallest Austrian opposition party Jetzt. In order for it to be successful, it would have to be supported by both, the Freedom Party and the Social Democratic Party (SPO). Both parties have left it open how they will vote on Monday.

Harald Vilimsky, FPO's lead candidate, declared yesterday that the confidence in Kurz and the interim government was gone.

"Kurz broke the government coalition twice within the last two years. We will discuss the situation again on Monday but the status quo is that we currently have no confidence in the government."

Pamela Rendi-Wagner, leader of the SPO, demands that the entire interim government, including ministers from Kurz's People's party (OVP), should be made up of experts and technocrats.

"I am concerned about Sebastian Kurz's approach. He has not sought dialogue or sounded out whether his proposal has a parliamentary majority," she said in a statement on Twitter.

Only the Austrian liberal party NEOS declared that it would not support the no-confidence motion, preferring instead to see Sebastian Kurz take responsibility for his actions in the role of chancellor.

Political vacuum in Vienna

Should the no-confidence vote succeed, Austria's president Alexander Van der Bellen would have to appoint a caretaker government quickly.

There are fears that such a scenario could create an unprecedented political vacuum of up to six months, until the holding of a snap elections in September and the successful forming of a new government.

But Austria urgently needs political stability.

A European Council meeting of heads of state or government is scheduled to be held on 28 May, just one day after the planned no-confidence vote in the Austrian parliament.

Austria will want to be represented at the summit, which is set to discuss the outcome of the European Parliament elections and start the nomination process for the heads of the EU Institutions, which have to be replaced after the elections.

Austrian president Van der Bellen underlined this point when he declared: "In the weeks and months [following the EU elections] intensive discussions will take place on European level setting the course for the European Union and Austria.

"During this time, Austria has to retain its ability to act and remain a reliable partner in the EU. The Austrian population expects this. And so do I."

Euro elections

Possible implications for the upcoming EU elections, to be held in Austria on Sunday (26 May), are now also being discussed.

Populist and far-right parties across Europe have been forecast to make gains and centrist European politicians now hope that the fallout from the Ibiza video will contain them.

Manfred Weber, the European People's Party candidate and European Commission president frontrunner, said that the video showed that the far-right and populists were "ready to sell their countries and their patriotism just to make a profit".

Experts also predict that at least in Austria the far-right will lose some votes as a result of the scandal.

In an interview with the Austrian Press Agency, Cornelius Hirsch, political analyst of Politico's "poll of polls" predicts that the FPO might not be able achieve their original projection of five seats in the European Parliament.

Austrian political scientist professor Peter Filzmaier underlines that the EU elections in Austria will be mostly be defined by domestic issues and the Ibiza video fallout.

"You have to be a fanatic optimist if you still believe that technical and substantive EU issues are going to be in the focus of the EU elections in Austria," he said.

The pressure on the FPO could also be felt on Thursday during the final TV debate among all the Austrian candidates.

Harald Vilimsky, who had portrayed himself as conciliatory and relatively mild during the election campaign so far, completely changed his strategy.

In an aggressive and bullish manner, he characterised the Ibiza video as an attempt to manipulate the elections. "The video is a two-year-old story, ignited by left-leaning media from Germany ten days before the elections," he said during the TV debate.

Hirsch expects that the impact on the votes for other far-right and populist parties across Europe will be "relatively small". Their voters will not be impressed too much by the Ibiza corruption scandal and the politicians will try to portray it as "a problem singular to Austria".

Latest poll

The most recent poll conducted by the Research Affairs Institute on behalf of the Austrian tabloid newspaper Osterreich between 18 and 20 May with 500 respondent shows that Kurz is still popular.

According to that poll, his party currently enjoys 38 percent support, gaining four percentage points since the Ibiza scandal broke. The FPO lost five percentage points and now holds 18 percent, falling short of a complete crash.

Exact predictions of the fallout of the Ibiza scandal seem to be difficult though. Hirsch cautions that a poll of only 500 respondents may not be entirely sound.

In the end it will be a "blind flight", he concludes.

Author bio

Stephanie Liechtenstein is a diplomatic correspondent and freelance journalist based in Vienna.

Analysis

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When Austria took over the EU presidency, chancellor Sebastian Kurz declared that his government - in a coalition with the far-right FPO - would use its six-months tenure to promote what he called "a Europe that protects".

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EU interior ministers are meeting in Luxembourg this Friday to discuss migration. The Austrian EU presidency is hoping to reach a consensus on Dublin reforms and a concept of 'mandatory solidarity' after briefing 27 EU states bilaterally over the summer.

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