Right-Wing Incompetence in Austria

Podcast available here: https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/29-right-wing-incompetence-in-austria

The Austrian political system has been under turmoil ever since a scandalous video was published by two German newspapers (Spiegel and Suddeutsche Zeitung), which shows former vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache from the nationalist Freedom Party (FPO), promising a supposed Russian oligarch niece state contracts for infrastructure projects in exchange for purchasing the Kronenzeitung, the largest tabloid newspaper in Austria with over 2 million readers. With Strache’s resignation, the coalition government fell apart and the country is facing snap elections in the fall.

Strache wanted the oligarch to use the tabloid to promote the FPO in the elections. According to the video, Strache suggested if she did that “we will get 34% and not 27%” of the vote. The oligarch pose was a scam, and apparently she was commissioned by a lawyer, who disliked Strache, to lure him into a mansion in Ibiza, a Spanish island, and then videotape him confessing his true intentions. Strache is known for his dislike for critical media, having attacked Armin Wolf, a journalist at the public broadcaster known for asking very tough questions to politicians, desiring an obedient media like in Hungary for Viktor Orban.

Strache claims that he was drunk and that the person that surveilled him ought to be prosecuted. But the video shows that Strache was not very drunk and could still articulate his thoughts clearly. Furthermore, in his conversation he was articulating his true thoughts, which is to gain maximum political power by manipulating the public via the media. The irony comes from Strache’s public speeches, where he has condemned the governing grand coalition for being corrupt and dividing the country among themselves as a fiefdom. But once Strache and the FPO gets in charge, they do the same political appointments and they are even more corrupt than their much-maligned predecessors.

The FPO has a long history of corruption and mismanagement, and it happened with the first charismatic leader, Jorg Haider. Haider made himself famous by condemning the power cartel of socialists and conservatives, which gave him a continuous string of electoral successes. By 2000, he reached the zenith by negotiating a coalition government with the third-ranked OVP under Wolfgang Schussel. European pressure and sanctions against the Austrian government prevented Haider from becoming chancellor. Instead, he retreated to his Carinthian province home, where he served different periods of governorship. Despite Haider’s criticism of the corrupt regime, he took millions of dollars of “gifts” from the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who was also his best friend. A bigger problem was with the Carinthian state bank Hypo Alpe Adria, which aggressively lent money to eastern European countries without these debtors being viable with regard to repayment.  Hypo also funded a grandiose soccer stadium and a luxury hotel, even though these projects don’t bring in much revenue. A state bank can’t do much lending unless the state government underwrites these loans, which is what governor Haider provided.

When internal party disputes made Haider quit the Freedom Party and found a new political party (that quickly went to a demise after his death in a car crash in 2008), Strache became Haider’s successor and promised to be cleaner and less corrupt than Haider was. With the support of his campaign strategist and speechwriter, Herbert Kickl, Strache led mayoral campaigns in Vienna, challenging the ruling Social Democrats with anti-Muslim and anti-migrant sentiment. Strache could deliver charismatic speeches that generated electoral gains to the Freedom Party. When the FPO got so big in 2017 as they had in 1999, the big parties could no longer ignore the FPO, and the OVP under Sebastian Kurz, who quit the previous coalition with the SPO, called for snap elections and promptly negotiated a coalition agreement with Strache’s FPO.

Unlike the public disagreements that prevailed in the grand coalition, the OVP-FPO coalition proved quite stable for the year and a half that it was in office, and there rarely was disagreement in public among the coalition partners, even though there were more reasons for discord than under the grand coalition between OVP and SPO. FPO general secretary and party strategist Herbert Kickl became minister of the interior, being in charge of refugee policy, and the police/ security apparatus. Kickl promptly caused controversy by advocating for “concentrating refugees”, which is an allusion to a Nazi concentration camp. Even if the intent was not as malign as many in the media and the political establishment believe, the idea is horrendous in its own term, because precluding refugees from mainstream society will cause the crime and social disorder the FPO is supposedly campaigning so hard against. Kickl, the security freak, also promoted the militarization of the police, providing them with military-style assault rifles and increasing police hiring. Kickl has a very loose understanding of the rule of law, ordering police investigators to raid intelligence services, presumably to find dirt on political opponents of the FPO.

Kickl’s unreliability was also the proximate cause for the collapse of the coalition government. When the Ibiza video became public and Strache announced his resignation, chancellor Sebastian Kurz demanded a full investigation of the Ibiza video, so he recommended to president Van der Bellen the dismissal of interior minister Kickl, who would presumably lead an investigation against his former boss, and would block any such investigation. Van der Bellen was the chairman of the left-leaning Green party, and complied gladly with his request. One should note how Van der Bellen only narrowly won the presidential elections three years ago against the FPO’s Norbert Hofer, the current party chairman after Strache’s resignation. If Hofer were president now, Kurz would have a hard time changing the government ministers.

In protest, all the FPO ministers resigned from the government and joined the SPO vote of no confidence motion against the OVP government. Kurz tried to salvage his office by delaying the parliamentary assembly by about a week after the EU elections which delivered a seat gain of 2 for the OVP, while the SPO stagnated and the FPO lost one seat, and appointing independent experts and civil servants close to the opposition SPO to fill the ministerial vacancies. The SPO under Rendi-Wagner had none of it, judging correctly that supporting a temporary Kurz administration until the snap elections would bolster Kurz’ popularity among voters, and pushed for the vote of no confidence. After the no confidence vote, Kurz called up president Van der Bellen, telling him that he would resign his office immediately and transfer the chancellory to his finance minister and deputy Hartwig Loger. Van der Bellen promptly dismissed the government cabinet and appointed them interim ministers, vowing to appoint a new cabinet shortly. The temporary chancellor is Brigitte Bierlein, chair of the constitutional court.

Upon resignation, Kurz immediately gave a speech in an OVP camp, promising to focus full-time on campaigning for the September elections as lead candidate for his party. He did not even bother to become an MP and chair of the parliamentary group. The OVP is likely going to win the elections with upwards of 40% of the vote. When the Ibiza video came out and Kurz called snap elections, I immediately recognized that the FPO voters are likely going to stay home, and some will vote for Kurz OVP. The Greens might return to parliament, which comes at the expense of Peter Pilz Jetzt party, which was founded by the former Green Party member Pilz after he was ranked lower in the party list for the last elections. The only possible challenger is Rendi-Wagner’s SPO, but the trained doctor, who became a politician only a little over 2 years ago (having been a doctor and high-level civil servant in the health ministry before), does not have the charisma or the vision to challenge Kurz.

With the right candidate, taking on Sebastian Kurz is not that difficult. The only thing that speaks for him is his youth and vitality. He does not have much political substance or a fixed political vision, but he has a Machiavellian killer instinct which matters to survive and advance in a leadership position. He realized that with an ideology of compromise one cannot win elections, but he needs agitation against unwanted foreigners and minorities. He was instrumental as foreign minister of the old government under the SPO chancellor Christian Kern of ending the grand coalition, sensing the possibility for a power grab in snap elections in 2017. Around that time, the voters had the Middle East refugee wave of late 2015 fresh in their minds. The FPO led a reliable anti-refugee campaign, which got mixed up with general xenophobia and Islamophobia that they had campaigned on in the past. What was new was that the conservative Kurz rode on the same anti-refugee policy without sounding explicitly racist. He did that by avoiding explicit culture clash statements, but still dog-whistling to get the right-wing voters to support him. He campaigned on closing the Balkan route as foreign minister, which was about convincing these Balkan states to shut their borders and not let the refugees travel on to Austria. He also campaigned on mandatory German courses for refugees and condemning presumed radical Islamists, who need to be deported.

The voters caught on the message, and Kurz OVP gained a few percentage points to overtake the Social Democrats, who ran a traditional pro-welfare agenda, arguing that the refugee topic distracted from the real concerns and needs of the voters. It is not surprising that Kurz and Strache saw eye to eye on cutting cash benefits for refugees, banning the burqa in public settings, increasing surveillance on Islamist preachers and coming up with new points of political agitation every few weeks.

Kurz also argued that the size of the state must shrink. Welfare services must be more restricted, the government’s tax take needs to decline and all of a sudden Austria becomes a more competitive country. This position would be hard to force on the SPO, which still has many trade unionists in their rank. It should also be noted that even within his own party about one third of the political positions are reserved for the OAAB, the civil servant and employee wing of the OVP. Within a grand coalition government, an unrestricted neoliberal agenda was hard to implement. It is also hard to win elections with neoliberal policies (except for the investors and businesspeople, who already have a neoliberal mindset), but voter support would still come with the focus on refugee policies and continuous agitation.

Kurz also neutralized any party opponents within the OVP by demanding the party’s full loyalty and discretion to act and appoint ministers. Kurz had the advantage that there were no crazily power-hungry opponents within the party. His immediate predecessor, Reinhold Mitterlehner, was a bureaucrat and party apparatchik, and in his autobiography you will find that Mitterlehner actually offered Kurz the OVP leadership position for the next elections, which reveals Mitterlehner’s lack of pure power instinct.

The last Machiavellian politician with an instinct for power within the OVP was Wolfgang Schussel, who blew up the coalition government in 1995 and negotiated a coalition with the FPO in 2000. Kurz integrated colleagues from the youth wing of the party (Gernot Blumel, Elisabeth Kostinger) as well as independent experts and businesspeople (Hartwig Loger, Margarete Schrambock, Heinz Fassmann, Juliane Bogner-Strauss) into his cabinet, thus bypassing the needs and interests of the three big party wings (employees, business, agriculture) and the provincial chiefs/ governors.

The major opponent to Kurz’ rule was the SPO, which went to opposition after the 2017 elections. The FPO, however, was quite open to neoliberal positions. Strache generally subscribed to the business freedom rhetoric, even though most FPO votes come from working class voters, who jump on the FPO bandwaggon because of the anti-immigrant rhetoric. The coalition agreement involved a debt brake (prohibiting new public debt), a greater reward for entrepreneurs, a cut in corporate taxes and restructuring of the welfare state. The latter point involved the abolition of the long-term unemployment insurance which allowed people to draw on public benefits beyond the 1 year unemployment period without means-testing. Now, the long-term unemployed would have to spend down their assets before being eligible for basic welfare. This measure will presumably increase work discipline.

Furthermore, the coalition government imposed a 60-hour work week/ 12 hour workday, which goes beyond the 10 hour maximum under the previous system. In rare cases, employers could previously impose a 12 hour shift if it was negotiated with the union. Under the new rule, unions do not have to be consulted if bosses ask of their workers to add hours. The only respite for workers is that they can reject overtime without stating a reason (although in a competitive labor market that could risk their job), and in a 17 week period the average workweek must not exceed 48 hours, so workers should technically be able to get 4 day work weeks or shorter work weeks to make up for the overtime in other weeks. There are probably more liberalization moves that the coalition intended to implement if the Ibiza videos had not come out. The great fear is that the recipe “anti-welfare policy coupled with anti-refugee sentiment” will work again in this election, especially if Kurz receives the biggest boost in electoral support. The Kurz-Strache coalition has meant a deterioration in labor standards in what had still been a quite corporatist industrial regime (i.e. where trade unions and company leaders co-determine wages and working conditions). As of now, things are not as explosive as in France, where the gilet jaunes protests have shown the limits to Macron’s neoliberal agenda.

The establishment media is hammering Kurz for going into a coalition with the FPO in the first place, because the right-wing populists- what a surprise- are charlatans and unreliable coalition partners. But within the logic of democracy, copying their playbook and coopting them in coalition governments is likely the only way out of the establishment impasse. Plato does not regard democracy as the most ideal form of government, believing that the mob cannot rule intelligently and they need to be led by a powerful, benevolent monarch. Aristotle was much more friendly to the prospect of democracy, but it has to be combined with the best elements of aristocratic rule. Really existing democracies that don’t respond to popular interest (as in the neoliberal regime) result in the rise of demagogues, who attack the corruption of the present political establishment and demonize outsiders and foreigners to get to power. Once they are in power, they become the establishment themselves and to prevent opposition, they want to shut down all democratic institutions like an independent judiciary and a free press. Democracy then devolves into a tyranny, and the tyrant himself needs to be overthrown if his rule becomes intolerable, but it is questionable whether the future leader is better for the people.

Austria is still somewhat far removed from a collapse of democracy compared to their eastern European neighbors that have joined the democratic club only the last 30 years. Strache’s resignation has been prompt and the political institutions and rule of law have been preserved. But how long will that continue? Strache despite being the last-ranked in the EU election list got enough priority votes to become eligible for an MP position in the European parliament. If he takes it, he can go to Brussels and lick his wounds. He might, in fact, return to Austrian politics once the voters have forgotten the Ibiza scandal, and I suspect many will. Within the FPO there are no genuine charismatic politicians. The new party chair Norbert Hofer sells himself as a friendly face of the xenophobic party, and with the presidential campaign three years ago he has name recognition, but he lacks the charisma and aggression of Strache. His new deputy is Herbert Kickl, a brilliant campaign strategist, but a horrible rhetorician. That plays into the hand of Kurz, who can expect a landslide in the fall elections.


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