by Simon Ballam & Dardis McNamee
The weekend of May 17-18 was dramatic: At 18:00, a clandestine video was released by two respected German media the Süddeutsche Zeitung and Spiegel showing Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache and FPÖ party chairman Johann Gudenus in an Ibiza apartment discussing dubious deals with the (supposed) niece of a Russian oligarch. Two themes were especially explosive: media manipulation and illegal party contributions. Strache wanted “what Orbán did with the media in Hungary” by buying a controlling interest in the largest Austrian daily, the Kronen Zeitung, to push the FPÖ to 34%.
Once in power he would redirect lucrative state infrastructure contracts to a new company the Russian would create. Money could then be funneled through a private association to avoid campaign finance laws. “Anything is possible,” Strache said and then repeated, absurdly, it must be “none-the-less legal.”
That the “Russian” was an elegant blonde and the meeting an elaborate trap in no way diminished the political fall-out. The second highest-ranking official was on record conspiring to syphon off tax-payer money and subvert democratic governance.
At 11:00 the next morning Strache announced his resignation from both government and party posts. But the cleansing effect was compromised by a whiny self-justification: Yes, his behavior had been “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake.” But he was the victim of “dirty campaigning,” an “illegal recording” and quotes “taken out of context.” He went on lamely to praise the achievements of the current coalition until finally: “I have offered my resignation to Kanzler Kurz, and it is decided.”
For hours, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz remained behind closed doors while opposition leader SPÖ boss Pamela Rendi-Wagner demanded he accept the inevitable consequences: “This government is finished.”
At 19:00, Kurz made his statement. He defended his government’s record, listing the match of election promises and achieved legislation, even praising the work of FPÖ ministers. But there was no defense of his coalition partner: “Enough is enough.” Strache’s meeting in Ibiza had demonstrated that “the FPÖ was unfit to govern.” Most tellingly, he said, the FPÖ was “not inclined to change its attitude.” He would request President Van der Bellen to call early elections. Kurz then went straight into campaign mode: “I want to continue my work … and hope for your support.” The next day, Sunday, he and the President appeared together to confirm the next election for the Nationalrat (Parliament) for September this year.
Kurz demanded that Interior Minister Herbert Kickl be let go, which President Van der Bellen accepted – causing the resignation of all FPÖ ministers with the exception of Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, who is technically independent. The outgoing ministers will be replaced with technocrats for the interim (and gossip proceeds apace as to who will take each spot).
Now there is talk of a vote of no confidence in parliament against Chancellor Kurz, which would require SPÖ and FPÖ votes to pass. The President is against it, but the desire to undermine Kurz’s advantage as an incumbent candidate in the forthcoming elections appears strong. This decision could come at any time in the days – or hours – to follow.