Austrian politics was once again corrected with the help of a scandal at the highest level
Formally, the current crisis in Vienna lasted no more than a weekend. On Saturday, 35-year-old Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who is called the prodigy of Austrian politics, announced his resignation amid a high-profile corruption scandal — it even came to a search in the office of the chancellor himself. And already on Monday, his colleague in the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), 52-year-old former Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, a native of an old count family from Upper Austria and a diplomat, not only career, but also hereditary, took his place.
It was not even necessary to reshape the cabinet: the Greens, the junior partners of the conservatives from the ÖVP, supported the candidacy of the new chancellor, thereby preserving the coalition.
Ambassador to France Michael Linhart was promptly appointed as the new head of the Foreign Ministry. And President Alexander Van der Bellen thanked both the retired and the newly minted Chancellors for their responsibility to the Republic of Austria.
Indeed, there is something to be thankful for: if Kurz had dragged out his resignation to October 12, the matter could have ended with a vote of no confidence, the collapse of the coalition and puzzling arrangements in which the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) would have to be taken into account. And so it turned out, in fact, a crisis without a crisis. But – with a pointed castling.
The new head of the cabinet, judging by the first reaction, is more suitable for the elite, both national and supranational, not only because of age, but also for a number of positions. He is a diplomat, which is important for the establishment, which is tired of the informal decisiveness of his predecessor.
The extent to which Kurz’s line will be corrected will be clarified along the way, but we can expect that Schallenberg will not so harshly pursue anti-immigration measures and argue in the EU over the euro budget. Nor will he be a consistent supporter of Nord Stream 2 and pragmatic dialogue with Russia.
Another question is how much all this diplomacy will appeal to the voter in Austria, who has already been accustomed to early elections. Let me remind you that the last one took place in 2019, also, after a scandal, the victim of which was the Vice-Chancellor from the FPÖ Heinz-Christian Strache. It is also interesting that, for some unknown reason, conservative politicians who advocate the establishment of constructive relations with Russia appear in all European scandals. A few days ago, a guilty verdict was announced in Paris against former French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was repeatedly persecuted, and the political career of former French Prime Minister Francois Fillon was buried. It seems that supranational structures are trying to seriously complicate the political life of leaders who seek to pursue an independent course.
Now Kurz is under attack – the leader with whom the conservatives have won elections twice. But if earlier he helped the party to emerge in the midst of scandals, the victims of which were other politicians, now the charges are brought against him. And if the meaning of the whole combination was to move Kurtz, then it was fundamentally important for the initiators to put the crisis into a mode in which it does not reach an election, and the coalition of conservatives and greens remains.
The coalition has been preserved, but the scandal is not over. To understand what it threatens, let me remind you of the outline.
Kurz’s departure from the government was largely predetermined by recent searches at the headquarters of his party, the office of the Federal Chancellor and the Ministry of Finance. Kurz himself has not been publicly charged in the course of the investigation conducted by the anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, but the focus of suspicion is precisely that the ex-chancellor and his entourage are considered to be involved in 2016-2018 in organising for his party, using state budget funding, positive opinion polls and publications on the resources of Österreich, Austria’s largest media company.
Moreover, the press publishes new leaks in portions (mostly phone SMS) in the course of this case. It follows from them that the investigation allegedly proceeds from the fact that the damage (embezzlement of taxpayers’ money) greatly exceeded the amount of €300,000 (if the abuse of taxpayers’ trust for such an amount is proven, the accused faces 10 years in prison).
There is already a figure for €1 million – as if the publication of fake polls and texts that contributed to the victory of Kurtz and his ÖVP were paid for with such amounts.
Of course, Kurtz calls these accusations false and intends to make every effort to refute them. He is an experienced politician, he knows how the “scandal machine” works in Austria, and it seems that he was not going to leave until the last. The junior coalition partners, the Greens (patronised by the United States), left no choice when they announced that they would support a vote of no confidence in the opposition if Kurtz was not replaced by another conservative party leader whom they trusted. That turned out to be Schallenberg.
A lot depends on this diplomat, who was considered Kurtz’s protégé since the days of working together at the Foreign Ministry and whom the outgoing Chancellor himself offered his place to. His differences from his predecessor are mentioned above, but there are also many cases when he had disagreements with Kurtz’s position: Schallenberg is much more active than Kurtz in advocating EU expansion into the Balkans. And at the end of August, receiving his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov as Austrian Foreign Minister in Vienna, during the meeting he publicly emphasised the contradictions between the EU and the Russian Federation.
Probably, soon we will see whether these are really different lines or still the same ones.
As for the retired chancellor, unformatted not only because of his age, but also because of many of his positions (he objected to Angela Merkel on migrants, and Emmanuel Macron on the EU budget), then he definitely should not be written off. Kurtz remains at the head of the ÖVP and intends to lead its parliamentary faction. All the ministers appointed by him are in place. As the head of the party, he retains control over the general line of the cabinet. The Social Democrats – the main force of the opposition, which was preparing a vote of no confidence in his government – are already calling Kurtz a “shadow chancellor”. And they ask out loud: was there a resignation?
In any case, few people in Austria think that Kurtz was taken out of the game. Apparently, during the pause, he will try to restore his reputation and get the charges dropped. If this succeeds, it is difficult to imagine who will be able to oppose him in the next election. Unless there will be a new scandal. Or jailing, as was once done with Berlusconi.