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Grand Theft Austria

Benjamin Opratko

A corruption scandal has brought down the Austrian government — and showed how close the racist right is to big business.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and President Alexander van der Bellen (not pictured) speak to the media on May 19, 2019 in Vienna, Austria. Michael Gruber / Getty

Interview by
Ines Schwerdtner
Steve Hudson

Even just last week it was Western Europe’s most popular and successful right-populist coalition. But on Saturday the Austrian government led by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (Austrian People’s Party, ÖVP) and Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (Freedom Party, FPÖ), imploded as snippets of a secret 2017 video surfaced.

The recording shows Strache and a friend relaxing in a luxurious Ibiza villa with a woman they believed to be a wealthy Russian heiress. In an entrapment sting, she promised she could use her purchase of Austria’s biggest tabloid to make the paper a campaigning tool for the FPÖ. Strache accepted the plan — suggesting he could provide her lucrative government contracts in return.

The affair has moved forward at breakneck speed, with Strache forced to step down, Kurz forcing the resignation of FPÖ Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, and snap elections now unavoidable. Ines Schwerdtner and Steve Hudson spoke with Benjamin Opratko, editor of the Austrian magazine Mosaik, to better understand what exactly is going on in the country, and what the government’s collapse could mean for the future of Austrian politics. The text below is adapted from an interview conducted for halbzehn.fm.


IS

This is by no means the government’s first scandal. What makes this one particularly bad?

BO

Scandals have occurred almost daily under this government, but until now whenever a Nazi said something racist in public their coalition partner, the conservative ÖVP, would brush it aside as an isolated incident. Here, we’re talking about the fundamentals of bourgeois democracy: auctioning off policies to the highest bidder. No bourgeoisie, not even one as degenerate as Austria’s, can accept that.

SH

So where do we stand now, what has the response been?

BO

Strache and his deputy Johann Gudenus, also featured in the video, stepped down from all their political offices the day after it was released. Chancellor Kurz of the ÖVP expressed his intention to call for snap elections, planned for early September, and now the situation has blown up into a genuine crisis of state. Kurz tried to exploit the FPÖ’s crisis and get rid of FPÖ Minister of the Interior Herbert Kickl — officially because he was FPÖ General Secretary at the time of the video and thus responsible for party finances and, potentially, illegal donations. The FPÖ, however, refused to accept Kickl’s demotion. After all, he’s considered the intellectual head of the far-right party. For that reason, all the FPÖ’s government ministers resigned collectively, taking down the coalition with them.

What happens next is unclear. A minority ÖVP government could be voted out by parliament at any time, which is quite likely. This could then lead to the appointment of an independent “government of experts,” a novel development in postwar Austrian history.

IS

We don’t know if the video contains more damaging material on the Chancellor himself. At press conferences he presents himself as a man of honor and the country’s savior, but what else might the video reveal?

BO

Strache and Gudenus talked about all kinds of things for hours, they were definitely drunk and possibly also on other drugs. A very short clip has already been released of them discussing Christian Kern (Austria’s last Social Democratic Chancellor) and Sebastian Kurz, and Strache talks about alleged sex parties with minors and drugs. But we’ll probably never get to see the whole video.

SH

Does anybody know who made the recording?

BO

No one knows. Evidently the video was offered to several media outlets months ago, albeit clearly at a very high price. But the real question is: why did it take so long and why was it only released right before the EU elections? We maybe could have been spared the FPÖ’s participation in government entirely had the video been released before the 2017 elections.

SH

Strache also talks about other rich people and corporations funding the FPÖ in the video. Who are they?

BO

He mentions René Benko, a real estate mogul, and the video gambling company Novomatic. But he also says they support both the FPÖ and the conservative ÖVP, something that’s been suspected for a long time. Among other factors, the ÖVP won the election because it exceeded the legal spending limit by six million euro — that’s a lot of money in a little country like Austria. It’s unclear to this day where all that money actually came from.

You’ve got to remember that Austria’s “Black-Blue” government was in many ways a dream for the country’s capitalists. They knew they’d get what they wanted from a right-wing government: tax cuts, extending the legal working day to up to twelve hours per day and sixty hours per week, bullying the unemployed, or chipping away at rent control. That the FPÖ is a party of the rich is no secret, but that they’re willing to take money directly from the rich and work around legal restrictions to do so triggered the current scandal.

SH

In the video they discuss how the billionaire could donate to a charity and even use the Kronen-Zeitung to win the election for the FPÖ. In return they promise government building contracts, which they would take away from the construction company Strabag. A lot of people are angry at this individual bad guy, Strache. But what it really shows is that the whole affair is more than just the actions of one party. If the state can be hijacked and turned into a vehicle for nepotism so easily, then something is fundamentally broken, don’t you think?

BO

We tend to come up with complex Marxist theories of the state on the Left — but sometimes the state really functions in the way a vulgarized Marxist-Leninist pamphlet would depict, with corrupt elites simply treating the state as their own private bank accounts. That’s a structural issue, but up till now we didn’t imagine things would play out like this in the core capitalist countries. Usually we would ascribe something like this to the Global South or the new EU member states in Eastern Europe. When that happens, pundits say that these countries aren’t “mature” enough for Europe because of their corruption. Now we know that corruption is just as real in Europe’s core.

It also shows how these countries are being changed under the influence of the far right. Strache and the FPÖ’s project is this: he wants a state like in Hungary, where Viktor Órban not only controls the media but also provides his friends with lucrative state contracts. It’s worth mentioning that the ÖVP under Kurz’s leadership has also moved towards the FPÖ on many issues.

IS

You’ve written a lot about Austria’s rightward drift and always emphasize that it’s a long-term process. Last Sunday thousands hit the streets to call for new elections and celebrate Strache’s resignation. A few days on, what do you think will happen next?

BO

It’s hard to say what will happen by September. But we have to start from the fact that a solid majority of Austrians voted for an authoritarian-right-wing project at the last election. This social majority won’t just disappear. Despite its anti-social policies and cuts to social services the government was very popular until the video came out.

We have to realize that both right-wing parties, the FPÖ and ÖVP, were mostly elected because they promised to take a tougher approach against foreigners, Muslims, refugees, and so-called “benefits scroungers.” And the government did as promised, in this regard. Austrians won’t change their minds on these questions just because they saw a video of Strache drunkenly hitting on a Russian billionaire. My fear is that disappointed FPÖ voters will switch to the ÖVP, whose policies are just as racist and capital-friendly.

The bigger question will be whether the discursive field as a whole can be shifted, away from issues like migration, Islam, and “domestic security,” towards other questions: social inequality, rising rents and living costs, the wealthiest 5 percent’s influence over politics. That’s the only way the next election could have a different result than the last one.

SH

And is there any hope on the Left? After the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) was part of a grand coalition with the ÖVP for so long, can anything approaching renewal or strength really be expected?

BO

The SPÖ under its new chairwoman Pamela Rendi-Wagner is positioning itself as a force of moderation and stability. If it had its way the grand coalition would come back. We can’t expect much from them. The danger is more that they’ll try to win back FPÖ voters by playing with right-wing rhetoric.

There isn’t much to their left. The Communist Party is very weak, and the Greens split before the last election. The strongest force is still the neoliberal “NEOS,” but at least on economic policy they share the ÖVP’s line.

IS

What about these weekly anti-government demonstrations, which were already being held every Thursday? What does the potential for protests developing outside of the major parties look like? Are the trade unions mobilizing against the twelve-hour day?

BO

Sadly, we can’t expect much from the unions either. Their leaderships just want the grand coalition back, with its corporatism and a slightly more “social” capitalism. They aren’t going to go on the offensive during the election campaign.

And yes, there were demonstrations for some months. They were important because they gave us, the opponents of this far-right government, some encouragement. But they weren’t mass mobilizations. Yesterday thousands came to Ballhausplatz in downtown Vienna because they were truly angry and demanded new elections. But a political force won’t develop from that automatically. That would require some kind of political leadership, which doesn’t exist at least for the time being.

If nothing else, at least the authoritarian restructuring of the Austrian state has been put on hold for now. That’s a good thing, and it gives us a bit more time. We have to use that time to stop the authoritarian project before it’s too late.