Even such huge scandals, which lead to the dissolution of a government, resignation of a vice-chancellor and the disclosure of massive corruption, might conclude with more of the same.
On May 17th 2019, at precisely 6pm, the German weekly Der Spiegel and the German broadsheet Die Süddeutsche Zeitung as well as the Austrian weekly Der Falter published a seven-minute video showing the then leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and vice-chancellor, Hans Christian (HC) Strache, and his chief whip, Johann Gudenus, in an Ibiza villa, drinking vodka mixed with Red Bull, using drugs (cocaine) and talking with an unknown niece of a Russian oligarch; the young wife of Gudenus was also present. The Russian niece was interested in investing her money (over a quarter billion euro) in Austria.
These seven minutes, we are told, were cut together from a seven-hour meeting held in the spring of 2017. The contents of this video, however, were so scandalous that Strache was forced to resign as leader of the FPÖ the very next morning (11 am, May 18th).
In a nutshell, the contents of this montage illustrated that Strache was prepared to literally sell out Austria: to privatise the water services, to cut press freedom (and thus to ‘Orbanise‘ Austrian media) and to allow the ‘Russian niece’ to take over the biggest and most influential tabloid, the Neue Kronenzeitung: ‘If she takes over the Krone newspaper three weeks before election and brings us to spot No 1, then we can talk about anything,’ Strache suggests.
He accompanies this statement with many gestures underlining his proposal and exclaims ‘zack, zack, zack’ to indicate how efficient such policies would be (an utterance which has meanwhile filled pages of jokes, memes, rap songs and so forth). Further, as the New York Times reports, ‘Mr Strache called journalists “the biggest” prostitutes on the planet, though he used a crasser term.’ Strache also pointed to ways in which money could be deployed to support the FPÖ via illegal channels, promising the Russian huge investments in road construction and so forth.
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Not surprisingly, in his resignation statement, Strache defined himself as the victim of a conspiracy: somebody had illegally filmed a private dinner and private conversation; most importantly, he apologised to his wife that he had drunk too much and flirted with an attractive Russian woman. Soon afterwards, Gudenus was suspended from the FPÖ. And, that very same day, the chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, from the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), declared at 7pm via public television that he would not run a coalition government with this FPÖ. This cleverly staged statement had been postponed at least four times during the afternoon. It had left a bunch of reporters waiting impatiently as well as thousands of demonstrators assembled in front of the Chancellery.
When is enough enough?
Kurz thus announced the end of the short-lived, 18-month period of the far-right / national-conservative coalition government. ‘Enough is enough,’ Kurz stated—as if he had not known beforehand whom he had actually invited to join his government. Indeed, more than 90 so-called ‘isolated events’ (Einzelfälle) have been documented in the past 18 months. These embrace instances of racist, antisemitic, revisionist actions and utterances by FPÖ politicians where Kurz usually remained silent and did not condemn obvious hate speech and possible incitements to hatred. Thus, it should have been ‘enough’ long ago, as many commentators suggested immediately after the speech. Indeed, Kurz tactically framed his speech as part of the ÖVP’s campaign for the upcoming election, instead of presenting himself as a deeply worried and responsible statesman, as chancellor of Austria.
Kurz also portrayed himself as a victim of a conspiracy—this time of the FPÖ (which he had obviously invited into government), of the former spin-doctor of the Social-Democratic Party (SPÖ), the Israeli Tal Silberstein, and other obscure forces. The name ‘Silberstein’ has now become a metonym for dirty campaigning—an obvious appeal to antisemitic prejudice as quickly noted by many journalists, scholars and writers. Kurz announced a snap election for September 2019. Meanwhile, the Austrian president, Alexander van der Bellen, had to form an interim government; the four FPÖ ministers and their cabinets had to be substituted by more neutral and trustworthy politicians, all close to the ÖVP.
But this is not the end of this surreal story. No more than a day after the elections to the European Parliament (May 27th), the FPÖ, the SPÖ and the small opposition party Jetzt—a splinter of the Austrian Greens—launched a no-confidence vote against Kurz’s new interim government. Jetzt and the SPÖ objected to a purely ÖVP-dominated government and had pushed for a no-confidence vote before the European elections (May 26th). However, the president of the parliament, Wolfgang Sobotka (ÖVP), postponed that vote until after those elections, obviously hoping that the scandal would blow over.
In spite of this huge and unprecedented scandal, the ÖVP reached 34.55 per cent (gaining 7.57 per cent compared with the 2014 election), the FPÖ 17.2 per cent (losing 2.52 per cent) and the biggest opposition party, the SPÖ, 23.89 per cent (losing 0.2 per cent). Moreover, Strache received 44,751 preferential votes, guaranteeing him a seat as an MEP in the European Parliament. Clearly, loyal FPÖ members manifested their unbroken trust in their former party leader. It took another 20 days for Strache (and the FPÖ) to decide that it would make no sense for Strache to accept this mandate. A resignation from his resignation? The entire government was dissolved—a first in Austria’s post-1945 history. The Austrian president, Alexander Van der Bellen, had to find a new chancellor very quickly as demanded by the Austrian constitution.
In retrospect, this sequence of events reads like good fiction, a drama with a quite simple plot, with good and bad guys, with victims and perpetrators; a conspiracy and no shades of grey allowed. And of course, instead of discussing the contents of the video, much energy is invested by the media and politicians in finding the culprits—who had staged this meeting and how this had been possible: how could an experienced politician like HC Strache walk into such an obvious trap? For example, the villa had been rented by unknown people.
Moreover, the niece of the Russian oligarch turned out to be a Bosnian or Latvian actress. The FPÖ talked about a ‘boozy story’, something which could happen to anybody under the influence of alcohol. The usual suspects were blamed: the media, specifically the German media meddling in Austrian affairs; the Jews, specifically Silberstein and suddenly also the Viennese-Jewish lawyer Gabriel Lansky (close to the SPÖ); the opposition parties and so forth. However, no evidence whatsoever for these accusations exists to date.
Meanwhile the SPÖ went to court accusing Kurz of spreading disinformation when stating that the SPÖ was to blame for the production of the Ibiza video. On July 1st, the SPÖ won this court case. Significantly, in this ruling, Kurz is now forbidden to make any connections between Ibiza-gate and the SPÖ in his election campaign. Moreover, Kurz has also promised not to mention Lansky any more in this context. The search for the ‘smoking gun’ continues.
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What are the consequences of this scandal? Many questions remain unanswered, apart from the search for the producers of the Ibiza video. Why did it take Kurz more than 24 hours to announce a snap election? Why was the video launched on May 17th 2019 and not in 2017 when it was produced? indeed, might this video have prevented a government coalition with Strache and the FPÖ after the national election of 2017? Will more secrets come to light? It is much too early to predict the outcome of the snap election on September 29th—but one can draw some initial conclusions.
Viewed positively, a government which took a far-right party on board has failed—and failed the second time since the first ÖVP-FPÖ coalition in 2000. Moreover, nobody can claim any more to be surprised that the FPÖ does not cater to the ‘small man and small woman’, but it is seemingly corrupt, prepared to make illegal deals with Russian oligarchs, attempts to cut human rights, damage democratic institutions and procedures and so forth.
Moreover, and in terms of broader lessons, it is also obvious that the far right can only succeed if supported by the conservative mainstream, by big business and neoliberal policies. Remaining in power, no matter what, has been and continues to be the motto of the Republican Party in the US—and of the ÖVP in Austria.
The dissolution of the coalition government and the appointment of an interim government (with Brigitte Bierlein, the president of the Supreme Court, as chancellor and Clemens Jabloner, former president of the Austrian Administrative Court, as vice-chancellor) have strengthened Austria’s parliament; new alliances have been made possible. The parliament has finally become the space for deliberation and debate again.
The interim government—consisting of extremely experienced legal scholars, officials and prominent state employees—is not allowed to make big decisions because it has not been elected and does not hold a majority in parliament. However, in contrast to the former ÖVP-FPÖ government, which seemed to be primarily committed to publicity, media performance and message control, the interim government welcomes experienced experts back into the government and as consultants. Recent opinion polls illustrate that many Austrian citizens would actually prefer the interim government and Bierlein to a newly elected government made up of traditional politicians or media-savvy and inexperienced party functionaries.
The former chancellor, Kurz, has renounced his mandate as an MP. He decided to dedicate himself solely to campaigning for the ÖVP until the election in September. Kurz does not seem interested in democratic parliamentary debates and decision-making—indeed, he has now started a campaign entitled ‘the people against the parliament‘, a slogan which clearly illustrates his far-right populist mindset and polarises the electorate.
Finally, everybody is relieved not to be confronted with daily or weekly instances of FPÖ hate speech, which dominated the media and distracted viewers, readers and listeners from other much more important topics. Indeed, this period seems to be a well-deserved break from the daily indignation, anger and dismay which had overwhelmed civil society since the coalition’s formation in 2018. Opposition parties now have the opportunity to mobilise their voters and set a new agenda in the election campaign, which has already started.
Viewed negatively, there exist indicators that the ÖVP and FPÖ would form a coalition government again, without Strache and without Herbert Kickl, the most controversial former minister of the interior who is considered the mastermind of the FPÖ. Both sides have repeatedly stated that they would like to continue implementing their policy agenda which they negotiated in the fall of 2017. The scandal is thus completely trivialised.
Conspiracy theories and the strategies of ‘victim-perpetrator reversal’, ‘strategic lying/disinformation’ as well as the ‘dead cat’ strategy seemed to work very well—with Strache and Kurz acting as the victims of the opposition’s evil machinations. The FPÖ and the ÖVP have successfully mobilised their followers. A new cleavage has been constructed, between ‘us’ (the people, the genuine Austrians) and ‘them’ (the parliament, the elites, the migrants, etcetera).
Typically for Austria, the ’deus ex machina’ strategy is employed, both by Strache and Kurz (and their parties): the search for scapegoats (who is to blame for the video?) usually implies that Jews are perceived as guilty. A new wave of traditional antisemitism can already be observed. As previous experience of Austrian political culture unfortunately illustrates, this kind of scapegoating has frequently proven to be successful.
The media continue to be dominated by (dis)information disseminated by Kurz’s well prepared and well-funded campaign. His popularity as politician is at an all-time high (38 per cent); he seems to be regarded by many as the ‘saviour‘. The Ibiza scandal and the ÖVP’s collaboration with the FPÖ seem to not have damaged Kurz’s image at all.
Strache has successfully portrayed himself as victim. His party lost only a small number of votes at the European Parliament election. The new leader and former candidate for Austria’s presidency, Norbert Hofer, presents himself—quite cleverly—as a statesman and has promised to abolish all explicit hate-speech, antisemitism, revisionism and xenophobia from the party. (Strache promised the same only 18 months ago.)
But, for a secular, western state like Austria, it is indeed surprising that thousands of people prayed for Kurz at a recent event in the Viennese Stadthalle, staged by evangelicals (‘Awakening Europe’), led by the Australian former drug-addict Ben Fitzgerald. Kurz was asked to climb on stage and even gave a small speech thanking him for the blessing and praising his followers. After much criticism by his party, the Catholic Church, the opposition and so forth, Kurz stated that he had been taken by surprise. Not surprisingly however, Kurz quickly employed the ‘dead cat’ strategy and started talking about the SPÖ, Silberstein and Lansky again, blaming them for the dissolution of the government. Of course, social media were dominated by memes, caricatures and jokes portraying ‘Saint Sebastian’.
In sum, one must conclude that—as I have stated elsewhere some time ago—‘anything goes’: we are confronted with another case of ‘shameless normalisation’. Even such huge scandals which lead to the dissolution of a government, the resignation of a vice-chancellor and the disclosure of massive corruption might conclude with more of the same—the establishment of a new Austrian turquoise/blue government between Kurz as chancellor and presumably a new FPÖ leader, after the national elections at the end of September. But—as this Austrian drama has illustrated—politics can sometimes change very quickly and unpredictably.
Ruth Wodak is emeritus distinguished professor at Lancaster University and the University of Vienna, with a research focus on identity politics, the politics of the past and discourses of the populist far-right. Recent publications include Europe at the Crossroads: Confronting Populist, Nationalist and Global Challenges (edited with Pieter Bevelander, Nordicum 2019), The Handbook of Language and Politics (edited with Bernhard Forchtner, Routledge 2017) and The Politics of Fear: What Right-wing Populist Discourses Mean (Sage 2015).