A scandal in Austria that brought down a government

Last Monday was one of the most eventful in Austria’s recent history. For the first time since the Second World War, the country’s Chancellor was ousted by a no-confidence vote following a corruption scandal, details of which emerged about a week earlier.

Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung — two of Germany’s most prestigious publications — released videos featuring two leading politicians of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). Heinz-Christian Strache and Johann Gudenus had been secretly filmed in 2017 during their vacation in Ibiza, Spain, talking about a deal with a woman who claimed to be related to a Russian oligarch.

In the almost seven-hour long video, the two were seen speaking about how the woman could use her money to influence Austrian politics. Enjoying sushi, alcohol and energy drinks in a luxury apartment, the politicians also promised the alleged millionaire government contracts and suggested that she buy the Krone newspaper, Austria’s largest tabloid.

Filmed months earlier

The video was filmed months before last year’s election and the creation of a coalition between the Conservatives and the FPÖ. It is not yet fully clear who lured both politicians into a trap and filmed them. However, as a result of the revelations, Mr. Strache resigned from his position as Vice-Chancellor and head of the FPÖ. Mr. Gudenus, MP and leader of the FPÖ’s parliamentary group, did not just resign from his positions, but also left the party.

Additionally, he claimed that he was “probably under the influence of knockout drops and drugs”. Mr. Gudenus also feared that further problematic material against him would be revealed.

Finally, the ‘Ibiza affair’ led to the fall of not just the two politicians, but the whole Austrian government.

“The Freedom Party used to portray itself as the ‘party of the poor man’. Even before this scandal, many knew this claim to be a lie. But it now has become more than obvious. All of it was a total farce. Leaders of the party just wanted to be elected to get all the money and the power for themselves. They would even sell the country to foreign oligarchs,” said Armin Anfang, a teacher from Vienna.

According to Mr. Anfang, the Conservatives, who led the government, immediately tried to benefit from the scandal. “It is well-known that Herbert Kickl [FPÖ leader who was sacked as Interior Minister following the scandal] was the main opponent of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, and now he is gone,” he said.

Now the Chancellor himself is gone too, and after the successful no-confidence vote, Austria is being led by an interim government. Fresh elections are scheduled for September. Mr. Kurz, 32, is one of the world’s youngest leaders and the first Austrian Chancellor since the Second World War to be defeated by a motion of no-confidence.

As a result of the far right’s fall, many people in Austria participated in spontaneous celebrations. In Vienna, thousands first gathered to demand Mr. Strache’s resignation, and after the government apart, they started to party. The Ibiza affair also brought a lot of international attention.

“Because of these folks [the FPÖ], our country is considered as a total banana republic. I hope that this image changes soon,” said Davut Demirci, a law student from Innsbruck.

Nevertheless, some people are not satisfied with the current situation. “The current spirit of optimism in Austria is exciting. It appears that mainly the Social Democrats [Opposition party which brought the no-confidence vote] are thrilled by that. In my opinion, the vote was a bit too radical since it was targeting the whole government,” said Miriam Imarhiagbe, a jurist from Vienna.

According to Ms. Imarhiagbe, a vote solely against Mr. Kurz himself might have been enough to secure stability. The vote against the government was led by both the Social Democrats and the Freedom Party.

Probably the person who spoke the wisest words was Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen. “Do not think about short-term benefits for your party. Ask yourself: does this help Austria? Does it help us within, does it strengthen our credibility in the world?,” he said after the release of the Ibiza videos.

In his long statement, Mr. Van der Bellen also turned to the country’s citizens and apologised for recent events. “Please do not turn away disgustedly from politics,” he urged the people.

(Emran Feroz is a journalist based in Stuttgart, Germany.)


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