FPÖ Dodges Fallout from Ibiza-Gate

The Freedom Party paints itself as a victim of conspiracies, but numerous unanswered questions remain.

The EU election results are in, and despite “Ibizagate,” the Freedom Party (FPÖ) managed 17.2% and nabbed three seats, a mere 2.52% loss compared to the last EU election. Disgraced former party leader Heinz-Christian Strache got enough write-in votes to take one of them – an offer he initially accepted via a Facebook post, but soon deleted.

This is quite a turnaround for a man who, less than two weeks ago, was seen offering government contracts to an alleged Russian oligarch in exchange for funding in a leaked tape of a 2017 sting operation, a revelation that led to his resignation as Vice Chancellor and the collapse of the administration.

The FPÖ has had “remarkably quick success in changing the narrative,” cultural scientist Walter Ötsch told Der Standard in an interview published May 28.  Ötsch illustrated their main tactics: First, they cast their party as a family sticking together through tough times. More importantly, the FPÖ shifted their focus away from the video’s contents, Ötsch said, and on to “the enemy outside, a network, a conspiracy.” The spin seems to have paid off.

Nonetheless, state prosecutors and anti-corruption authorities are currently investigating whether the leaked video contains evidence of prosecutable crimes, reports say. Austrian media have also been chasing leads from the leaked video, whose source is still unknown.

Where Does All the Money Come From?

Among the unanswered questions: Where does the FPÖ get their funding? Strache mentioned off-the-books contributions channeled via Vereine (non-profit associations) on tape, naming wealthy donors (all of them have vehemently denied giving such contributions). But records shared by the FPÖ with the Kronen Zeitung this week claimed they officially received €35,755 in 2016, €13,845 in 2017 und €215 in 2018.

This is “peanuts compared to the sums donated to other parties,” the Kronen Zeitung said, adding that “In any case, this disclosure is just a smokescreen [for the real question]: Namely, did large donations from party-affiliated associations reach the FPÖ without passing the court of auditors?“

Furthermore, Strache told the oligarch that if she were to acquire shares of the daily Kronen Zeitung and staff it with sympathizers, the FPÖ could win the election. Austria’s most popular and influential newspaper, many politicians have courted the Kronen Zeitung’s favor. Last fall, billionaire René Benko bought 25 percent, one of the wealthy donors Strache named in Ibiza. But to what extent do shareholders control the editorial line?

You’re the Newspaper I Want

Even though the paper is an “object of desire,” as Chief Editor Karl Herrmann said in an interview with Der Standard on May 26, the paper “has never been able to fulfill [owners’] desires and has not wanted to. The Dichand family [the principal owners] and editors were always able to successfully defend against them.” That said, Hermann says the paper is planning „course corrections [to become] more thoughtful, conscientious and perhaps more respectable.”

Finally, Strache promised the oligarch that if he were in power and she started a construction firm, “all public contracts that the Strabag [a construction firm] gets now will then go to her company.” Shortly after the video was filmed, the FPÖ – in a reported “gesture of goodwill” to the would-be donor – called on Strabag chairman and prominent NEOS donor Hans Peter Haselsteiner to reveal his “checkbook-cultivated political networks” as an act of “political hygiene” – and ended their press release with the acronym “wer/zah/lts/chaf/ft/an”, i.e. wer zahlt schafft an (“he who pays, gets”).

Haselsteiner remained nonchalant, telling Der Standard that he didn’t care – neither back then nor today – about “what the right-wing brown dwarf burps from the left” – a retort both graphic and mysterious. We will see what investigations have yet to reveal.

Naomi Hunt
Naomi Hunt is a managing editor at Metropole, with roots in the U.S. and Malaysia that have long been buried under Austrian soil. She previously served as a program manager at the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) and was a Senior Press Freedom Adviser at the International Press Institute (IPI).

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