The events in Austria are proceeding at a rapid pace, with the country on the brink of a full-blown crisis. Since Monday, the coalition government between the right (the Austrian Popular Party, ÖVP) and the extreme right (the FPÖ), which previously appeared rock-solid, has effectively disappeared without a trace, even including its last remnant, the provisional government.
Just a few days ago, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was still saying this coalition was a model of “renewal” which needed to be exported throughout Europe, while at the same time saying he was against any alliance between the EPP and the extreme right across Europe. Whenever this contradiction was pointed out to him, Kurz and his team would respond only with a smile—a disturbing habit that ended up labeled “the sect of smiles” by the weekly Falter. At the moment, there is very little for Kurz to be smiling about, as the formation of a new transitional government until the early elections in September looks like a difficult task.
On Tuesday, Alexander van der Bellen, the Austrian president and the former leader of the Green parliamentary group (a party that is no longer in parliament), instructed Kurz to propose technocrats to replace the FPÖ ministers, who oversaw Interior, Defense, Social and Labor, and Transport. But where would the parliamentary majority come from to vote the new government in? The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), the second-largest party, which would be needed to form a parliamentary majority without the support of the FPÖ, is not willing to support any government headed by Kurz. It is calling instead for the replacement of the whole government with technocrats, a formula that has no precedent in Austria.
“In the current situation of crisis, only an independent government can provide a basis for confidence, while one by the Popular Party alone would not,” said Pamela Rendi Wagner, a former health minister and the Secretary of the SPÖ since November, still without much experience and in the process of finding her own voice. “I am concerned about how Kurz is moving forward with this, without making an effort to seek a parliamentary majority.”
For a possible vote of support by the SPÖ—a difficult feat in any case—the ÖVP would have to repeal some of the measures passed by their government, such as the 12-hour working day or the amendment to the minimum income law. At the moment, there are absolutely no relations between the two parties. One should recall that two years ago, it was Kurz who, after seizing control of the Popular Party in his well-known fashion “because it had moved too far left,” blew up the coalition led by the Social Democrats under Christian Kern. However, the Social Democrats are feeling the pressure arising from the institutional call to responsibility, to avoid plunging the country into chaos.
The special parliamentary session on the government crisis, which the opposition parties wanted to have as soon as possible, was instead pushed to a more distant date: next Monday, after the European elections, thus avoiding the possibility that Kurz would face the European elections after he was made to resign and was no longer Chancellor. The small party Jetzt (meaning “Now”), which previously split off from the Greens, will file a motion of no confidence against Kurz, and might indeed get a majority to back it. The Social Democrats have not yet decided whether they will vote for the Jetzt motion or file their own. The FPÖ is also undecided, after saying on Monday that “if they don’t have confidence in us, why should we give them our confidence?” The liberals from Neos have announced that they will vote in favor of the government to ensure institutional stability, but they are not enough to give the ÖVP a majority.
The chaos was triggered by “Ibizagate,” the scandal which broke out on Friday, exposing the leader of the FPÖ through a covertly videotaped sting operation. In the video, Hans Christian Strache says in no uncertain terms that he is willing to sell off state contracts, newspapers, even the public water supply to people he believed were Russian oligarchs, in exchange for campaign funding.
On Monday, the weekly Profil revealed that in addition to the (supposedly) charitable organization Austria in Motion, mentioned in the video as a means for funneling illegal cash, there was also another NGO set up to collect illicit funds, Wirtschaft für Österreich (“Economy for Austria”), specifically targeting industry figures, according to a company head and former donor turned whistleblower.
On Saturday morning, Vice-Chancellor Strache and Johann Gudenus, both featured in the video, resigned from their positions, and the government had already fallen by the evening. On Monday, Kurz’s controversial Interior Minister Herbert Kickl was also fired, because “in order to shed light on the promises of government contracts and on illegal financing, no minister from the FPÖ can be directly involved.” At that point, the FPÖ, indignant, abandoned all its remaining ministries in the interim government.
Kickl was the ideologue and strongman who most embodied the obsessive anti-migration impulses of the FPÖ. He was the Austrian Salvini, but only partly so: his brutality was more ostentatious, an unambiguous example of moral decay without the cover of Salvini’s smiles and kisses all around, which made him the most unpopular Austrian politician.
There are many rumors going around about who was behind the sting and the video recording: from the FPÖ’s claim that it was “Israeli agents” to the possibility that it was all part of an internal FPÖ power struggle, according to the Kurier daily. Kurz himself has claimed that the election guru Silberstein was behind it, hired by the SPÖ.