On 29 September new elections will be held. The disclosing of the Ibiza video in May marked the end of the coalition of the conservatives and extreme right wing, at least provisionally. Read Michael Graber’s report on the situation in Austria.
Then Vice-Mayor of Vienna, Johann Gudenus, in the left corner,
imitating a firearm, and the to-be Vice Chancellor
Heinz-Christian Strache, both FPÖ, in Summer 2017;
Summer 2017: A few months before the last parliamentary elections, the to-be Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and his loyal assistant, then Vice-Mayor of Vienna and FPÖ party whip Johann Gudenus travel to Ibiza to meet a supposed niece of a Russian oligarch. Strache and Gudenus try to sell off half of Austria to the investor if she would help the FPÖ enter government – by way of buying Austria’s largest daily, the Kronen-Zeitung, including demoting undesirable journalists and channelling concealed party donations to the FPÖ.
"Listen, if she [the alleged niece of the oligarch] really takes over the newspaper beforehand […] If THAT media pushes us two, three weeks before the election, and THIS media pushes us right away […] Then we’ll make not 27 but 34 [per cent]. […] As soon as she takes over the Kronen-Zeitung, as soon as that happens, we have to talk completely openly […] and have to say: These three, four people, we have to push them. Three, four people, they have to be ditched."
In the hours-long conversation Strache makes this and other statements – and was secretly filmed doing so. The ostensible oligarch’s niece and her companion are decoys trying to expose the real conduct of these top politicians.
Even without the implementation of this deal, the election results of two years ago allowed the formation of a right-wing government comprising not only the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), which had moved to the right, but also the FPÖ. The FPÖ got not only the Vice-Chancellor position but, among other things, all security-policy related areas (Defence and Interior Ministry). The government enacted some demands made by the employers’ associations for many years now, such as the possibility of introducing a 12-hour workday and 60-hour workweek in all branches. The FPÖ used its government participation to build up its positions in the state apparatus – not least at the cost of the conservative ÖVP.
The government came apart in May of this year, one day after the video was published by the German magazine Spiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung. The 20-year old party hit ‘We are going to Ibiza’ again soared to the top of the Austrian charts and became the hymn of Austria’s government opponents.
Even for the conservatives, the by now so thoroughly unmasked FPÖ leadership could no longer be kept in the government, although the 32-year-old Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had up to then consistently ignored all the right-wing extreme utterances of his coalition partner.
A few days later in parliament the Kurz government was given a vote of no-confidence not only by almost all opposition parties but even by the FPÖ. Only the neoliberal NEOS – along with the governing conservatives themselves – voted against the no-confidence. Then the Federal President appointed a transitional government of judges and high officials. The Supreme Court judge Brigitte Bierlein became Federal Chancellor, the first woman ever to have held the position.
In the EU elections, which followed shortly afterward, the FPÖ fell to under 20% but then quickly stabilised at this level in the polls. Despite the gravity of the scandal many FPÖ supporters apparently accepted the former Vice-Chancellor’s justification that it was just a ‘drunken moment’ (Strache in his resignation speech on 18 May) and firmly believe that the FPÖ’s inclination to corrupt dealings is no different from that of other parties. Despite the emergence of other scandals in and around the FPÖ it is holding at only two percentage points behind the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and contending with it for second place in the coming election.
Kurz, the youngest ex-Chancellor of the Second Republic, and his party continue to maintain a wide lead over SPÖ and FPÖ, which are hoping for government participation with the ÖVP. But the ÖVP has established some hurdles: To convincingly demonstrate their alleged zero-tolerance for right-wing extremism, they in particular will no longer accept former FPÖ Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, known for his especially rassist and offensive electoral slogans. It was Kickl who, after seventeen years of conservative administration, took over the Interior Ministry and set in motion a process of filling its offices with FPÖ members.
With a view to maximizing its vote the ÖVP is also sending signals to the SPÖ and Green electorates. For example it is changing its position on those applying for asylum who are in training programmes, proposing that they be allowed to conclude their studies even if their stay permit is not renewed. For those looking for apartments – in Austria more than half the population are renters – it is announcing that the agent’s costs should be borne by the landlords – a long-time demand of the tenants’ associations and of the Communist Party (KPÖ).
The Greens, who did not pass the four-per cent bar in the 2017 elections and have been out of parliament ever since, could come back with a two-figure result in the EU elections and can expect to get back into the Austrian Parliament. Due to Social Democracy’s weakness, which will stand election with its new party chair, a red-green government is hardly possible. The ÖVP is thus in a comfortable position to choose between different coalition variants, for it will hardly be possible to govern against it.
The Green split-off Liste Jetzt will in all probability not pass the four-per cent bar. The second smallest party in parliament, the NEOS, stands for an extremely neoliberal economic policy and is working towards participation in a ÖVP government.
Alongside the – very small – left group der Wandel (Change), which is close to DiEM25 and also cooperating with the Party of the European Left (EL), the KPÖ is presenting candidates. The Communist Party, not in the national parliament since 1959, has been working towards broad electoral alliances with the aim of increasing the electoral weight of the left in Austria. The bar for entering parliament is relatively high at four per cent, so that many left voters, for fear their vote will be thrown away, vote for the presumably ‘lesser evil’. In this way thoroughly non-left parties undeservedly get left votes. This time around it was possible to form the electoral platform Alternative Listen, KPÖplus, Linke und Unabhängige (Left and Independents) out of the Alternative Liste Innsbruck (ALI), the Turkish-Kurdish group DIDF (Federation of Democratic Workers Associations), and Unabhängige Linke (Independent Left).
Under the slogan ‘we can’, the electoral alliance is focusing on the issues of affordable housing, opposition to corruption in politics, to the widening gap between rich and poor, to racist xenophobia, and to corporations destroying the environment.
Now, four months after Ibiza, we are about to see where Austria is heading.