Austria is heading for snap elections after the far-right vice-chancellor resigned over a video that appeared to show him promising public contracts to a woman posing as a Russian backer, in return for help in his election campaign.
The Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, said on Saturday that “enough was enough” and his conservative Austrian People’s party (ÖVP) was ending its 18-month-old coalition with the nationalist Freedom party (FPO). Elections would be held “as soon as possible”, Kurz said.
Kurz’s deputy, FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache, earlier told a press conference he had been the victim of a “targeted political assassination” aimed at breaking apart the coalition government, and insisted he had done nothing illegal.
However, Strache admitted the secretly filmed footage showed him “acting like a teenager” and that his behaviour had been “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake”. Fighting back tears as he asked for forgiveness, he said that in the cold light of day, his remarks were clearly “catastrophic and exceedingly embarrassing”.
Kurz, who has repeatedly been forced to distance himself from the FPO after a string of recent revelations about extremist, antisemitic and racist sympathies in the far-right party, said that while he had not always commented publicly there had been “many situations where I had a lot of trouble tolerating the FPO’s behaviour.”
In meetings on Saturday with the FPO, he said, he “had not felt a readiness to change”. Since it was not possible to continue with the far-right party or form a new administration with the opposition Social Democrats, who reject his tax and debt-cutting agenda, he said, “I have informed the president of my wish to hold national elections.”
The German weekly Der Spiegel and the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung published the video on their websites on Friday. The papers said the recordings took place in a luxury Ibiza villa in July 2017, months before the parliamentary elections that brought Kurz’s conservative and Strache’s far-right parties to power.
The recordings show Strache, who took over as leader of the nationalist party in 2005, and the FPO’s parliamentary leader Johann Gudenus, who also resigned on Saturday, talking to an unidentified woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch about how she could invest in Austria.
The woman says she is interested in gaining control of the country’s largest-circulation tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung, to which Strache replies that after staff changes at the paper, it could help the FPO in its election campaign.
Strache is also filmed saying the woman would then be able to gain access to public contracts. Both newspapers said they had no clear information about who had set up the elaborate sting operation, but the video had been authenticated by experts.
The vice-chancellor’s apparent eagerness to accept Russian help raises further questions about the extent of the FPO’s longstanding ties to Russia. The far-right party has signed a formal cooperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party.
Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, said on Saturday that the continent was “confronted with currents... who want to destroy the Europe of our values”. Far-right parties rejected values like the protection of minorities and basic human rights, Merkel said, and “politicians being for sale also plays a role”.
Strache, 49, who will be replaced as party leader by his deputy, the transport minister, Norbert Hofer, apologised for flirting with the woman, whom he describes as attractive in the recording. “It was typical alcohol-fuelled macho behaviour in which, yes, I also wanted to impress the attractive female host,” he said.
Calling for early elections, the Social Democrats described the incident as Austria’s biggest postwar scandal. Hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside Kurz’s office, chanting “Snap elections now!” and “Sebastian, your government, your responsibility”.
The FPO’s lead candidate in next week’s European parliament elections, Harald Vilimsky, cancelled a trip to Milan planned for Saturday, where he was due to take part in a campaign event launching an alliance of European far-right parties led by the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini.
The far-right party’s co-chair, Christian Hafenecker, said lawyers were considering the party’s response. Neither Strache nor the party received any benefits from the persons concerned, he said in a statement, adding that since the video was “obviously recorded illegally, we are also preparing appropriate legal steps”.
In the video, Strache, whose party’s first leader was a former SS officer, also ponders the part-privatisation of Austria’s public broadcaster, saying it should be more like the government-mouthpiece state media has become in neighbouring Hungary.
He also appeared to suggest political donations might be made through a foundation with links to the FPO, rather than the party itself, apparently in order to escape legal scrutiny.
Kurz’s options are limited because while his ÖVP tops opinion polls, it is well short of a majority in parliament. The only other party with which it could hope to form a majority government is the Social Democrat party, with which the chancellor has strained relations.
I also recommend this article if you want some more details about the video (and also the other articles with the "Austria" tag.)
Opinion: Austria's far-right show their true colors
The audacity and arrogance of Austria's far-right led to their premature undoing. DW's Barbara Wesel sees the FPÖ scandal as a warning for conservatives willing to enter alliances with the far-right.
The Ibiza recordings of the secret meeting of now-former Austrian Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache with a woman claiming to represent a Russian oligarch certainly make for great viewing. For his political opponents, the footage of the ex-leader of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) lolling about on a sofa, drunk and uninhibited, comes as a gift. For Austria's conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, it comes as a loud warning. The final disguise of civility has been torn from Strache's face. What is revealed is a truly ugly grimace.
FPÖ's true nature
In reality, "Secret Operation Ibiza" did not yield any great surprise when it comes to the character of Strache and his party chums. The most astonishing thing is the sheer impudence of the FPÖ leader, who promised government contracts in return for party donations and also threw in biased media coverage from one of the biggest newspapers in the country. Strache behaved as if he owned the Alpine republic along with all of its citizens.
The Ibiza revelations came after a string of scandals that had put increasing pressure on the coalition of conservatives (ÖVP) and the far-right in Vienna. First, there was an FPÖ link to a member of the so-called Identitarian movement who received money from the perpetrator of the Christchurch terrorist attacks. That came after the party campaigned against public broadcaster ORF after one of its hosts justifiably questioned the party about the Nazi undertones of a caricature that the had been shared by the FPÖ youth wing.
Another FPÖ politician has likened migrants to rats, and Nazi anthems have been heard at social events closely linked to the party — the series of gaffes is endless. But the FPÖ has been operating off the democratic spectrum for a quite a while now. It has deliberately abandoned attempts to distinguish itself from neo-Nazis and other right-wing radical groups.
Blow for the right
The affair is a blow to the planned alliance of right-wing parties ahead of elections to the European Parliament. Right-wing party leaders are either shrugging their shoulders, posturing themselves as victims of the affair or denying involvement altogether. But this latest FPÖ incident proves once again that the right-wing populists are not seeking reform in Europe — rather they want to bring about its destruction. Their political model is partially inspired by Russia and in part by fascism.
The hopes of Italy's interior minister and Lega party leader, Matteo Salvini, who aspired to win the conservative European People's Party (EPP) as an ally and really influence European politics, may finally be crushed with the Ibiza case.
On the campaign trial, German politician Manfred Weber, the EPP's lead candidate, distanced himself from the Ibiza affair by pointing out that he has long been against populists and extremists — whether they are on the left or right — because they do not offer real solutions. Why he even mentioned leftists — when this is really about right-wing extremists — and why his attempt at distancing himself from far-right parties was so feeble remains somewhat of a mystery.
Unfortunately, it is Weber who for years laid the way for the rise of Viktor Orban, Hungary's authoritarian prime minister. Orban — a self-proclaimed anti-democrat who openly rejects European values and norms — now serves as a model for Salvini and other right-wing populists.
Perhaps Weber is so embarrassed about all of this that he doesn't want to talk about the FPÖ affair. If he does not finally realize what is truly brewing in the right-wing corner of the European Parliament and that he cannot do business with these parties, then the man is truly beyond help.
On the European election campaign trial of the EPP's lead candidate, German politician Manfred Weber, he distanced himself from the Ibiza affair by pointing out that he has long been against populists and extremists — whether they are on the left or right — because they do not offer real solutions.
As to why Weber felt it fit to mention leftists during in this discourse that was really about right-wing extremists — and as why his attempt at distancing himself from the far-right parties was so feeble — remains somewhat of a mystery.
Getting dirty in the swamp
Earlier it seems that Chancellor Kurz believed that he could get away with hitching a ride with the FPÖ. But the far-right party has recently abandoned any restraint and made Kurz's life in the coalition increasingly difficult. Austria's chancellor wants to preserve his residual credibility as a bourgeois conservative, but Strache and his friends have forced his government further and further into an extremist right-wing corner. Kurz should have realized that this alliance would be neither tenable nor sustainable in the long run.
It is actually rather simple: those who climb into the swamp get dirty. Anyone who gets involved with with right-wing extremists and friends of neo-Nazis is a useful idiot. There can be no coalitions with those who label Western democracies "decadent" and rave about dictatorship à la Putin. The Strache scandal is a final warning to all those in Europe who believe that they can get into bed with right-wing extremists but sill consider themselves democrats. It is too late for a call to "nip it in the bud."
Now the time has come for: "Do not continue down this path!"
I'm not surprised about anything they said in the video. While I'm glad this coalition failed, we now have almost four months of election campaigning ahead of us. Well, at least we won't have to see Strache and Gudenus on any posters (in the last years, they both were on all the election posters, political ads in the newspaper etc. - or at least it felt like they were).