Austria’s Far Right Gains Ground Despite Massive Corruption Scandal

June 5, 2019

Austria's right-wing FPÖ party was forced to leave the governing coalition in the wake of a serious corruption scandal, but nonetheless went on to increase its vote in European Parliamentary election. We analyze why with Walter Baier

Austria's government collapsed after a mere 17 months in office due to a no confidence vote and a political scandal involving the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) This was the first time that a vote of no confidence took down a chancellor since World War II. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz resigned and a temporary chancellor, Brigitte Bierlein, will be the first female chancellor in Austria's history until new elections are held, likely in September. The crisis began when Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Stracher, who was also the leader of FPO, was caught on camera on the resort island of Ibiza offering a woman who he believed was the niece of a Russian billionaire government contracts in exchange for manipulating Austria's media to support his party. This has become known as the Ibiza Affair.

“[The Ibiza Affair] was tremendous proof of corruption and the readiness to sell out the country to the Russian oligarchs,” German economist and coordinator of Transform Europe Walter Baier told The Real News Network's Greg Wilpert.

Baier added that the right for the most part did not care about the scandal, and in the European parliamentary elections, which took place just one week after the scandal, the FPO lost only a fraction of support: “This is similar to the Trump phenomenon that whatever this guy does and whatever these guys in Austria do, there is a part of this society which is disenchanted and disconnected from the traditional political and communicative system—it's even like a church, you could say.”

Alexander Van der Bellen, who swore in temporary chancellor Bierlein and has called for elections in September, has been able to mitigate the rise of the far right in Austria, especially as it relates to the Ibiza Affair. Van der Bellen insisted on constitutional rules, followed the no confidence vote, and dismissed the Minister of Interior Herbert Kickl, an outspoken racist and neofacist, preventing a right coalition and resulting in the fall of Kurz. Still, without a strong left, Baier explained, it is the right and even neo-fascist groups that will continue to threaten to take hold in Austria.

“The former popular parties, the Social Democrats and the Conservatives broke the promise of maintaining Social Security's high living standards, at least for the middle classes and those parts of the middle class, which feel disappointed, disenchanted, disconnected from the political system, tend to vote for the far right unless...[a] radical left alternative exists, as is the case in Greece or in Portugal,” Baier said. “In those countries where strong and influential left parties do not exist, the protest is channeled through a nationalist and radical and in many cases—as it is in Austria—by neo-fascist parties.”


Austria's Far Right Gains Ground Despite Massive Corruption Scandal

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore. Austria’s government collapsed after a mere 17 months in office due to a no-confidence vote, and a political scandal involving the far-right FPÖ Party. This was the first time that a vote of no-confidence took down a chancellor since World War II. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz resigned and a temporary Chancellor, Brigitte Bierlein, will be the first female chancellor in Austria’s history until new elections are held, probably in September. Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen introduced the temporary chancellor as follows.

PRESIDENT ALEXANDER VAN DER BELLEN Today, I am pleased to introduce to you a figure who, as the newspaper wrote, was the first President of the Constitutional Court. And she will again be the first, particularly the first female Chancellor of the Republic of Austria. I am pleased, ladies and gentlemen, to be able to introduce Ms. President Brigitte Bierlein. She is the sitting President of the Austrian Constitutional Court and will be named Chancellor of the Republic of Austria by me within days.

GREG WILPERT The crisis began when Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache was also the leader of the far-right FPÖ, or Austrian Freedom Party, was caught on camera on the resort island of Ibiza, offering a woman who he believed was the niece of a Russian billionaire, government contracts in exchange for manipulating Austria’s media to support his party. Without the FPÖ, the ruling party, the ÖVP, no longer has a governing majority in the legislature. To discuss this scandal and its ramifications, I’m joined now by Walter Baier. Walter is an Austrian economist and Coordinator of the network Transform Europe, which is a network of 34 European political organizations from 22 countries and is the political foundation of the European left. Thanks for joining us today, Walter.

WALTER BAIER Hi. Thank you for having me.

GREG WILPERT So, what is your understanding of what happened in Ibiza? Why is it a scandal, and how do you think it will affect the voters of the FPÖ party?

WALTER BAIER Well, you explained perfectly what happened, that there was footage showing Mr. Strache, the leader of the FPÖ Vice-Chancellor, discussing with a lady who he didn’t know so far about how she could support the party through buying a big Austrian tabloid and what he would do for her in order to enhance her economic interests in Austria. That was a tremendous proof of corruption in the readiness to sell out the country to Russian oligarchs, but I must disappoint you in a certain extent since the European elections, which took place one week later, gave only a loss of 2.2 percent to the FPÖ. So, it seems that the core of the voters of the FPÖ, didn’t care much about this scandal and even voted Strache with preferential votes to the European Parliament. So, things are still very complicated in Austria.

GREG WILPERT Now, as you mentioned, so they did very well in the European Parliamentary elections despite the scandal, the FPÖ, the far-right FPÖ. Now, what does that mean? I mean, you said that they clearly didn’t care about the scandal, but why is that? I mean, what’s going on? Is it that immigration issues or the other issues that the FPÖ deals with are so much more important for them?

WALTER BAIER Well, it’s necessary to understand what the FPÖ actually is. It is a very traditional party, deeply rooted in the Austrian elite, which throughout the whole 20th century were split between a German nationalist current, which is represented by the FPÖ, and the conservative, if you could say so, orientated or connected with Austrian capital. That means that this party is structurally-rooted in Austrian society. The second element is that despite the scandal, it still disposes of a huge media impact. It possesses all media outlets and that can stem resilience. I mean, maybe this is similar to the Trump phenomenon that whatever this guy does and whatever these guys in Austria do, there is a part of the society which is disenchanted and disconnected from the traditional political and communicative system. It’s even like a church, you could say.

GREG WILPERT And, why is that? I mean, what is going on in Austria at the moment that is providing so many voters for the FPÖ at a time when they’re clearly involved in a scandal like this? I mean, what is this disconnect about? Tell us more about that.

WALTER BAIER Well, that’s what we experience in Austria, but not only in Austria. In the whole of Europe is a crisis of the political systems. The former popular party is the Social Democrats. The conservatives broke the promise of maintaining social security, high living standards, at least for the middle-classes, and those parts of the middle-classes which feel disappointed, disenchanted, disconnected from the political system, tend to vote for the far-right unless a real left-orientated, radical-left alternative exists, as it is the case in Greece or in Portugal. But in those countries, where strong and influential left parties do not exist, the protest is channeled through a nationalist and a radical, and in many cases, as it is in Austria, by neo-fascist parties.

GREG WILPERT Now, when we spoke to you last time, it was back in 2016 when the presidential election between FPÖ candidate Norbert Hofer and Green candidate Alexander Van der Bellen took place. Van der Bellen ultimately won the election. Has he, as head of state but not of the government, been able to do anything since then to slow down the rise of the far-right in Austria?

WALTER BAIER Well, he played an excellent role during this governmental crisis of the last weeks in insisting on the constitutional rules. Actually, he dismissed the Minister of Interior who is an outspoken racist, neo-fascist, a very nasty xenophobic, racist person. And by doing that, [he] spoiled the governmental coalition because at the beginning, at the outset, when the footage from Ibiza was released through German and Austrian mass media, the ÖVP conservatives and the FPÖ tried to maintain the coalition. Only when they understood that Van der Bellen is not willing to approve a government including this very bad Minister of Interior, the governmental coalition split and that introduced then the fall even of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz.

GREG WILPERT Well, we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Walter Baier, Coordinator of the network Transform Europe. Thanks again, Walter, for having joined us today.

WALTER BAIER Yeah. Thank you very much. Have a nice day. Bye-bye.

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.