What’s Next in Austria’s Government Crisis

After months of fighting the pandemic, the government has just presented its major substantive project, the tax reform –and now everything hangs in the balance. The investigations into and around Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and the allegations of corruption, embezzlement, and positive media coverage bought with tax payer money turned into a tangible political crisis on Thursday, October 7.

The government could be history already on Tuesday, October 12, when a special parliamentary session is scheduled. Crucial legislative projects are hanging in the balance in the meantime. And stable conditions are not to be expected quickly. Much is different in 2021 than in the “Ibiza” crisis of the summer of 2019.

All party heads have spoken privately to Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen by now, who is due to address the nation at 18:00 today. In the meantime, here is how the next steps in this political drama could unfold.

What the Constitution Says

Based on historical experience, the founding fathers of the Austrian constitution thought about the event crisis of a crisis very carefully. Precisely for that reason, the constitutions gives the president the power to appoint and dismiss the government. He can therefore decide the pace of change and guarantee a certain stability in uncertain times.

This is why the ball is now in the court of Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen, who has different options for dealing with the current situation. But the different variants of a transitional government are what the name implies, a government of transition. Such caretake government could quickly be toppled with the right majorities in parliament.

Quasi-Italian conditions in Parliament with a “concentration government” of all political forces apart from the ÖVP would probably be short-lived, experts agree. What is particularly questionable is how the ready draft of the “eco-social tax reform” drafts would be handled. It is hardly conceivable that another coalition could pass what the People’s Party (ÖVP) and the Greens have prepared. Representatives of the ÖVP reminded the public, voters and their coalition partner of that fact on Thursday, when Finance Minister Gernot Blümel underlined this point once more.

The Crucial Question

The crucial question right now is the following: How to deal politically with the revelations and investigation procedures of Vienna’s Public Prosecutor’s for Corruption and Financial Affairs (WKStA).

The ÖVP considers itself capable of acting and governing, despite the ongoing investigations. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz asserted that he can clear up all the accusations. The Greens meanwhile have questioned Kurz’s moral “ability to act” and for themselves, the integrity of the entire government.

A Game of Poker

The media and observers see a high-stake game playing out over the coming days.

  • “Kurz is hanging on by a thread,” titled Austrian daily Kurier;
  • “Kurz’s position is shaky and he’s playing poker,” said the daily Krone, Austria’s largest newspaper.

“There is simply too much on the table,” writes, for example, Daniela Kittner in the Kurier and continues “Kurz has taken power in the party and the federal states while abusing tax payer money for it. That is the serious accusation. Whether he himself or his faithful falsified the bills makes a difference in terms of criminal law, but not politically.”

For the Greens, the question in this situation is to weigh whether the implementation of their cherished reform project would be conceivable in any form. In this respect, the question of Kurz’s ability to act is one of that of the entire government. Or, as Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens) put it, “weighing stability and responsibility.”

The decision of the Greens hangs on this thin thread. And the Green member base, as can already be seen in social networks, will not keep still.

A Battle of Narratives

All political actors are currently positioning themselves and scrambling to shape the narrative.

  • That of the ÖVP is that they want to continue governing and that the presumption of innocence applies for everyone, also the chancellor, non-withstanding the revelations and investigations of the WKSta.
  • The Greens will want to do everything they can to ensure “stable conditions” and at the same time to clear up the matter. They may also have to explain in the media that they would have been prepared to continue if there had been another chancellor but Kurz from the ranks of the ÖVP.

On this topic, ÖVP club chairman August Wöginger made a firm statement in an Ö1 morning journal: “Who is the ÖVP’s chancellor candidate is still decided by the ÖVP.”

Meanwhile, the calculus for the Greens is becoming ever more complicated.

As Petra Stuiber noted in the Austrian daily Der Standard: “Nothing would be more damaging to democracy and the rule of law at the moment than if the Greens left this coalition right now, thus triggering a confusing chaos and leaving the judiciary’s investigative authorities, who have ventured this far, now to their own devices – or to the ÖVP.”

However, It is possible that the development among the Greens is already a bit further along her, as the voices calling for them to stay in the government are becoming fewer.

The editorial collective ZackZack claims to have called all Green mandatories in Parliament, asking them whether they would support vote of no confidence against Chancellor Kurz. The report claims that the government has already lost his governing majority.

Whether this is actually the case will be seen on the special session of Parliament, scheduled for next Tuesday, October 12.