Austria: The Meltdown Of An Authoritarian Adventure

After the uncontrolled collapse of his far-right coalition, Sebastian Kurz tries to invent himself as a saviour from the crisis he himself caused.

Analysis: Robert Misik

And suddenly it felt like waking up from a nightmare. When on Saturday evening Sebastian Kurz said „enough is enough“, declared the coalition with the right-wing extremist FPÖ to be over and announced new elections, the hustle and bustle in front of the historic Chancellery in Vienna, where Prince Metternich, who had been overthrown in 1848, resided, turned into a hilarious party. „Ibiza, Ibiza“, laughing teenage groups shouted. Later they danced to Michael Jackson. Up to 10,000 people had besieged the seat of government throughout the day, while Sebastian Kurz’s ultra-right coalition collapsed behind the walls in an uncontrolled meltdown.

Nobody had expected this. For months, the coalition had ruled stable, was unchallenged in polls despite escapades and right-wing extremist „individual cases“ – an Austrian euphemism for endless sucessions of scandals – and ran its program: xenophobic agitation, authoritarian restructuring of the state, increasing control over the media, discrediting voices from civil society and the opposition. The next step should have been a new law for the public broadcasting company, to establish a tight governmental control. In all these plans there was basically no difference between Sebastian Kurz, the right-wing populist chancellor, and the FPÖ, his extremist coalition partner. At best there was differences in matters of style. Most had expected it to go on like this for some time. Better, more correctly: that all this is little by little getting worse and worse.

And all of a sudden it’s all over. Since then, on Friday evening, 6 pm, „Der Spiegel“ and the „Süddeutsche Zeitung“ published the scandalous video from the year 2017, in which Vice-Chancellor and FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache and his parliamentary leader, Johann Gudenus, promised to a supposed Russian oligarch daughter to sell half the country if she managed to acquire the powerful „Kronen-Zeitung“, a tsunami wave built up that buried the government under her within just over 24 hours.

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As scandalous and revealing as this video is – the two of them talk partly like drunken half-wheels, partly like pimp types, partly like failed figures – it is actually enlightening to see here what we actually know: they talk outrageously about everything that has happened since then. Orbanization of the country, the state as booty. Basically, they only describe in rabble-rousing language what the Kurz Strache-Government has done so similarly in 17 months.

What can be heard on this video is so outrageous that the question of how it came about ultimately recedes far into the background. Nevertheless, this is of course a topic that everyone is interested in. The video was recorded a few months before the last parlamentary election. Whoever made it invested a lot of time and money: an obvious actress was trimmed for oligarch-daughter, she approached Johann Gudenus, which certainly took a few weeks. A villa on Ibiza was rented and equipped with video and surveillance technology. All this cannot be financed with a few tens of thousands of euros, especially if you have to imitate the lifestyle of a billionaire. Who did it? A secret service, political mercenaries of the political competitors, people acting on their own account? Why didn’t they use the video in the run-up to the national elections? In addition, those who produced this video don’t have to be identical to those who used it now. Maybe someone wanted to influence the 2017 election campaign, but then preferred to sell the stuff later to interested parties. In the 2017 election campaign, there were enough shady figures in the SPÖ environment as well as in the environment of Sebastian Kurz and his ÖVP who can be trusted to invest on a stockpile or even on their own account.

One thing is clear: the transformation of the country into a right-wing, authoritarian regime à la Orban is now over. The FPÖ won’t be moving into a government for a long time. Even a collapse of the party is not completely unthinkable. There is much to suggest that within a few days it will also fly out of the provincial government of Burgenland (where it rules with the SPÖ). Then there is an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition in Upper Austria.

Sebastian Kurz will, if he remains chancellor, govern with other partners – be it with the SPÖ, be it with the Greens, be it with the center-right Neos. In such constellations a kind of „Thatcherism light“ is possible in the worst case, but no further establishment of an semi-authoritarian rule. Sebastian Kurz is now trying to emerge stronger from the crisis. He had tried the FPÖ, he had a plan, he had swallowed up a lot, but it had turned out that it was not possible to govern with this party – that was his communication strategy with which he resigned the government and at the same time opened the election campaign. It is quite possible that this will work out and that Kurz will win a large number of voters from the FPÖ. After all, he has a talent for communication and is adept at staging himself as a saviour from crises that he ultimately caused himself.

But the devastation caused by such a tsunami wave, which is currently hitting this government, can never be predicted exactly. Even the inventor of the „Ibiza Coalition“ is now in a storm: after all, Kurz is responsible for two government crises, including turbulent snap elections, within 24 months, which is why the broader public opinion might grow that he himself should clear the way for a new beginning in Austrian domestic politics.

Whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: the worst thing happening is to have a conservative chancellor with a centrist or left-wing coalition partner. After 17 months, the country has survived the adventure of „right-wing extremism and perfidy in power“ – faster than the most incorrigible optimists would have expected.

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