In recent weeks, Austria has been beset by a string of corruption allegations at the highest levels of government: Former and current finance ministers have been accused of peddling business-friendly interventions in exchange for political contributions; a former deputy chancellor and justice minister is accused of betraying state secrets to a friend; a top civil servant is accused of abusing his office; a former finance minister is in court accused of giving preferential treatment to a friend’s firm when privatizing public property.
And, to top it all off: the Chancellor has written an “open letter,” accusing the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Economic and Corruption Affairs (WKStA) of inappropriately targeting officials in his government and party, leveling grave accusations against it.
This is a scandal!
And it has happened in one of the richest countries in the EU, with a mostly solid reputation for the rule of law, for upholding democratic values and the separation of powers. In such a country, the chancellor, as leader of the executive branch, should respect and support the independence of the judiciary and not implicitly brand it as serving the interests of the opposition parties.
But recently, the young chancellor, who has been celebrated at home and abroad, has lost some of his luster as a result of Austria‘s troubled record in dealing with the effects of the corona crisis.
Now, at the beginning of March 2021, Austria‘s infection rates are soaring again, indicating a third wave – most likely because certain businesses were allowed to reopen too soon, while lockdown and curfews were not effectively enforced. But it is also because of early outbreaks of the new, more contagious, mutations of the coronavirus.
As a result, Austrians are more and more frustrated: The off-and-on restrictions seem capricious, the messaging unclear, and the EU-wide lack of vaccines that would promise release from the onerous restrictions a torment. At the same time, Austria’s portfolio of aid measures for business and households – often poorly designed and overly bureaucratic – have been slow to arrive, so that the country’s economy has contracted much more than that of Germany, among others.
In addition, more and more information has come out suggesting that the Interior Ministry, run by a close associate to the Chancellor, could have pre-empted the young terrorist who killed four innocent bystanders in the center of Vienna on November 2, 2020: He was well known to authorities as having tried to join ISIS. He had also been intercepted trying to purchase ammunition in Bratislava and had met with known international terrorists shortly before the attack.
On top of that, the Ministry recently called up special forces and canine squads to deport three young girls from Austria to Georgia and Armenia, girls who had spent most of their lives here, while their parents applied repeatedly and unsuccessfully for asylum. This was seen as excessive force and was heavily criticized, even by many in the ÖVP, the Chancellor’s party.
It was probably this succession of calamities that led the political star, seen as the master of message control, to make an unheard-of attack on the independent judiciary.
Now what? When one of the top state officials calls this independence into question, violating the rule of law and the separation of powers, what are we supposed to think?
There can be no excuse for this. Either the Chancellor thinks he is above the law (which of course he is not), or his previous success with the voters and the adoration of national and international media have made him oblivious. Either way, it is extremely dangerous.
Many in Austria have condemned his actions. And internationally, a number of respected media have made scathing remarks about the state of Austrian democracy, damaging our reputation abroad. Given our history, we cannot afford this.
At last, on Tuesday March 2, Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen spoke out. “The judiciary must be left in peace to do its job, regardless of who is concerned,” he said in a nationally televised address.
It was high time.
Kurt Bayer, economist and blogger (https://kurtbayer.wordpress.com)