After a government collapse, uncertainty for Austria’s right-wing experiment

BERLIN — What happens when a mainstream party brings far-right populists into government?  Austria has been that question’s most high-profile experiment for the last 17 months: Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose center-right People’s Party (ÖVP) took a sharp rightward turn in the 2017 elections to become the biggest political force, formed a coalition with the populist far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), giving his new allies outsized influence over issues such as migration.

But the experiment abruptly collapsed over the weekend in a way no one saw coming: with a leaked video, a fake Russian heiress and alcohol-fueled discussions about corrupt deals on the Spanish island of Ibiza.

The video, released Friday evening by the German news outlets Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung, shows Vice-Chancellor and FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache and fellow FPÖ politician Johann Gudenus meeting in 2017 with a woman they believed was the daughter of a Russian oligarch. Over the course of an hours-long conversation, seated in a room containing what looks like the remnants of a fraternity party, Strache promises the woman lucrative government contracts in exchange for help in the upcoming parliamentary campaign. He also suggests the woman should buy the largest Austrian newspaper, Krone Zeitung, to gain influence in the country and help tip the electoral scales in the FPÖ’s favor. (More here, in English, from Spiegel and SZ.)

What’s now known as “Ibizagate” triggered a political earthquake overnight. Strache resigned on Saturday afternoon, blaming alcohol for actions he described as “dumb, irresponsible and a mistake”—although he nevertheless said he was the victim of a “carefully planned political assassination.” A few hours later, Kurz announced he was breaking up his party’s coalition with the FPÖ, calling for snap elections as soon as possible.

“Enough is enough,” the chancellor said in a brief statement to press in Vienna. “With this behavior, the FPÖ has damaged our reform projects and the path toward change. They have also damaged our country’s image.”

Coming just a week before EU-wide elections to the European parliament, there’s no doubt the Austrian government collapse is unwelcome news for populist far-right forces across the continent, who have been expected to make record gains. Had he not been in the midst of resigning on Saturday, Strache would have been appearing alongside like-minded leaders in Milan as part of a new nationalist alliance led by Italy’s Matteo Salvini.

But as commentators and political analysts survey the damage in Austria and declare it proof that partnering with the far right was a failed experiment for Kurz, it’s important to remember the coalition ended not because the FPÖ failed to moderate its extreme rhetoric once it entered government. Kurz was, after all, willing to put up with a near-constant string of FPÖ scandals, from Nazi-era fraternity songbooks to a poem likening refugees to rats to ties with the right-wing extremist Generation Identity—all either without comment or with fairly pro forma denunciations at the time. In other words, Kurz knew what he was getting when he brought the FPÖ into his government and had clearly accepted that as the cost of getting things done. It wasn’t until clear and undeniable accusations of corruption emerged that he ultimately pulled the plug.

Kurz essentially acknowledged as much during his statement to reporters, saying he had previously kept the coalition intact for the sake of implementing its policy proposals. “I had to accept a lot of things, from the rat poem to the proximity to radical right groups to recurring individual cases,” he said. “And even though I have not always commented publicly, you can probably imagine there have been many situations that have been very difficult for me to swallow. Nevertheless, in the interest of the policy work, I didn’t end the coalition in the first case of misconduct.”

It wasn’t just one case, however. Despite the prevalence of a common theory about far-right parties—that bringing them into government forces them to moderate—that was hardly the case with the FPÖ. A constant cycle of provocation has long been a hallmark of the party’s strategy, something that hasn’t changed since December 2017. This is, after all, the party that campaigned in the mid-2000s on slogans such as Daham statt Islam (which roughly translates to “The homeland instead of Islam”) or Mehr Mut für unser Wiener Blut (“More courage for our Viennese blood”).

Whether it was the FPÖ’s top candidate in the European elections going after the prominent television anchor Armin Wolf, Strache’s recent use of the word “population exchange” (a keyword of right-extremist groups like Generation Identity) or Interior Minister Herbert Kickl’s suggestion that the European Convention on Human Rights is outdated, the FPÖ’s top leaders didn’t immediately become more statesmanlike once their party joined the government.

Still, the ÖVP-FPÖ government seemed (until recently) to be remarkably stable. Despite the scandals, what seemingly mattered was that the parties agreed on their overall policy approach—especially when it came to tightening controls on immigration. As Kurz said Saturday, he held things together because of the substantive work they were doing; he noted that he looks back on the policy actions of the coalition, which made good on its campaign promises, “with conviction and great pleasure.”

The video was a step too far, however: Continuing to work with the FPÖ would have done further damage to Austria’s reputation abroad, something Kurz has been striving to elevate since taking office. Both he and Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen acknowledged that the reputation issue was a key factor in calling for snap elections: Kurz said the FPÖ had “damaged the country’s image,” and van der Bellen declared, “It is now a matter of Austria’s reputation in Europe and the whole world.”

Kurz was already in campaign mode during his speech. He outlined the overall course and accomplishments of the government, urging FPÖ supporters happy with the country’s new direction to vote for him instead—in the hope that he and his ÖVP can gain enough support to govern alone. “I would like to invite all the people in Austria who are satisfied with the course that we have begun in recent years, who are content with this course, to support us in the elections,” he said.

There are still plenty of questions both about what the scandal means for the government (will some FPÖ ministers remain in place until the elections?), what it means for next weekend’s European elections (can the FPÖ avoid a complete collapse in the polls?) and how it came about in the first place (who’s behind the video, and why was it released now?).

But having provided a fascinating test case in allowing the far right into government, Austria will now serve as a case study in how such a party revives its fortunes after a major corruption scandal. The FPÖ has done this before: When it served in government with the ÖVP in the early 2000s, then-Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel dissolved the coalition and called snap elections in 2002. The FPÖ took a nosedive in that vote, dropping from more than 26 percent to just over 10 percent, but still ended up back in government with Schüssel and managed to rebuild its support in the years since.

Now Austria has an unpredictable few months ahead. I’ll be heading there next week to take a look at the fallout from “Ibizagate” and talk to Austrian voters about what will the government look like until the elections take place.

Lead image credit: https://www.politico.eu/article/sebastian-kurz-triggers-austrian-election-after-far-right-scandal/