Russia Scandal Brings Down Government in Austria

“Enough is enough!” Those were all the words necessary Saturday for Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to explain why he was taking the country to early elections. His center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) would be pulling out of a governing coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). “I am not in politics to hold this office,” the Chancellor said in his announcement, “but to work for our beautiful country.” The President, Alexander Van der Bellen, has not yet set a date for the election, but condemned the “bold disrespect to the citizens of our country” which precipitated it.

The previous day, in a scene reminiscent of the Abscam scandal, Kurz’s Vice Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, was revealed on tape soliciting a woman he thought was a Russian investor. The head of the FPÖ promised the woman lucrative contracts in exchange for helping his party in the previous election. The woman, calling her self Alyona Makarova, claimed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch interested in buying Austria’s largest tabloid. The Kronen Zeitung would then be used to give the FPÖ favorable coverage. In the video, reported by Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, and Süddeutsche Zeitung, Strache called journalists “the biggest whores on the planet.” Strache resigned on Saturday.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (Photo: sebastian-kurz.at)

For Kurz, Friday’s bombshell was the last straw in a two-year flirtation with the populist right. “The Freedom Party has damaged the country’s image,” Kurz stated in retrospect. His coalition dance partners, who almost beat the rival Social Democrats (SPÖ) in 2017, couldn’t stay out of the international headlines, and obscured the work he was trying to do. Kurz called a series of anti-Semitic scandals involving FPÖ members “hard to swallow.” For other observers, the video is merely the latest chapter in the history of a party founded by former SS officers in 1956, dragged toward the mainstream (and briefly in to government) by Jörg Haider, and back out again.

For what it’s worth, the ÖVP enjoys strong and consistent leads in the opinion polls, at around a third of the electorate. The SPÖ comes in second, at around a quarter of the vote, and the FPÖ typically 2-5 points behind them. That was before the tape, and the resignation in disgrace of the Austrian Vice Chancellor, of course. Pamela Rendi-Wagner’s SPÖ will no doubt make it an issue, questioning the judgement of the 32 year-old Chancellor for making the pact in the first place. The scandal also complicates the picture in elections to the European Parliament on May 26. The ÖVP and SPÖ had been neck and neck.

Kurz’s coalition was supposed to test whether old mainstream parties and new populist ones in Europe could govern together. Saturday seems to have brought that questionable experiment to an ignoble end. Already fighting allegations the world over that the populist right is too friendly with Russia– whether expressed by Strache or Hungary’s Orban– Saturday’s events would seem to make future engagements less tenable. A grand coalition, between the ÖVP and SPÖ, had governed the country for the previous ten years before the Wunderkind-Kanzler. Another may be on its way, with a different party on top.

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Robert Martin (CN Staff)

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