Rise and fall: the scandal that toppled Austria’s Sebastian Kurz

Ultimately, the one factor faster than the rise of Sebastian Kurz was his downfall.

For the previous 4 years, the 35-year-old has been the master of Austrian politics. However a scandal that broke simply 12 days in the past has introduced his second chancellorship to an abrupt finish. Police raided ministries throughout Vienna, revealing the existence of a probe by Austrian state prosecutors into grand corruption on the coronary heart of presidency. Kurz is its central suspect.

No fees have been introduced. However the allegations are explosive. Kurz and a coterie of shut allies are suspected of illicitly utilizing taxpayers’ cash to bribe media organisations into offering optimistic protection of the then novice politician, which helped propel him to energy in December 2017.

It’s a mark of Kurz’s success that the political backlash has been so swift. Austria’s opposition events had been even keen to ponder a coalition uniting the far proper, greens, socialists and free market liberals simply to oust the chancellor and shunt his conservative Individuals’s social gathering from energy.

“It’s a spectacular, sheer political fall. He was so completely profitable [at winning votes] as a politician in Austria,” says Thomas Hofer, a political guide. “His closest allies and his sternest critics each form of regarded him with this sense that he might stroll on water, if he needed to.”

Police raided ministries across Vienna on October 6 as part of a probe by state prosecutors into government corruption
Police raided ministries throughout Vienna on October 6 as a part of a probe by state prosecutors into authorities corruption © Lisi Niesner/Reuters

In Austria’s final elections in September 2019, Kurz delivered the Individuals’s social gathering certainly one of its largest ever mandates: 37.5 per cent of the vote. Even after his swift resignation as chancellor on October 9 Kurz is to stay the social gathering’s chief, and can head its parliamentary caucus — giving him an computerized seat on the cupboard desk. However it’s unclear how tenable such a place will likely be. Vienna is rife with hearsay that additional revelations are to observe. Investigators have solely simply completed reviewing the primary third of seized supplies.

Prosecutors have already produced lots of of pages of allegations, and launched dozens of personal messages between Kurz and his allies, plucked from telephones and computer systems seized in a sprawling sequence of investigations stretching again to 2019. After the newest raids, one other 400 pages had been publicly launched.

No matter any authorized case which may be introduced for bribery or perjury, the 2 central felony allegations prosecutors are wanting into, the investigation has laid naked an unsightly aspect to Kurz’s fashion of presidency: a set of disclosures that vary from the surprising — political ruthlessness, cynicism and plotting — to the embarrassing, with a superabundance of emojis and cringeworthy proclamations of loyalty. The scandal has breathed new life into the outdated Habsburg bureaucrats’ adage, jedes Schrifterl ist ein Gifterl — each little factor put down in writing may be poison.

“Austria [now] is aware of one factor for sure: that abuse of energy, critical systematic corruption, manipulation of the inhabitants, perfidy and hypocrisy are what maintain the [People’s party] collectively at its core,” railed Herbert Kickl, head of the far-right Freedom social gathering, at an emergency session of parliament final Tuesday.

The corruption scandal forced Sebastian Kurz to resign as Austrian chancellor
The corruption scandal compelled Sebastian Kurz to resign as Austrian chancellor © Joe Klamar/AFP by way of Getty Pictures

Austria is a small European nation, however one that’s central to the EU mission. If the rule of legislation is faltering in Austria, then it’s a damning indictment of the EU’s political well being.

The government — now led by Kurz loyalist Alexander Schallenberg — narrowly survived a vote of no confidence. However the anger amongst parliamentarians was plain. From the left and proper, they criticised what has develop into often known as the “Kurz-system”: an alleged community of patronage reaching from the chancellery throughout the Austrian political, financial and media panorama.

“A brand new parliamentary committee of inquiry will now examine to what extent the Individuals’s social gathering’s abuse of energy has impacted the workings of state,” says Stephanie Krisper, an MP for the liberal Neos, and a vociferous critic of presidency corruption. “What is exclusive is how improperly Sebastian Kurz and his ‘new’ Individuals’s social gathering acted and what their system was keen to do to guard itself. Since day one they’ve attacked the justice system and investigations in opposition to them. It’s Orbanesque.”

However, notes Krisper: “That energy corrupts is well-known, and naturally, in Austria, it isn’t simply one thing that started with the [Kurz system].”

A political outsider

In 2017, Sebastian Kurz was Austria’s international minister — its youngest ever. However he had ambitions to go additional. Together with a bunch of shut advisers he had watched the success of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche motion in France and believed {that a} related method — a political outsider promising nice reform — was wanted in Austria.

Kurz envisaged a motion of his personal that may break the cosy consensus politics of the centre floor that dominated the Austrian authorities, and had lengthy stifled actual reform. Grand coalitions between the left and proper had been the norm of Austrian politics because the conflict. However in consequence, little or no ever modified. The schooling system, many Austrians complain, is in want of radical reform, however for many years has solely seen piecemeal adjustments that each the left and proper can agree on.

To shake issues up dramatically Kurz blended conventional fiscal conservatism with a touch of social libertarianism, and outflanked the far proper by adopting most of its hardline attitudes to immigration.

Thomas Schmid, the former general secretary at the ministry of finance, was one of Kurz’s most loyal operators
Thomas Schmid, the previous common secretary on the ministry of finance, was certainly one of Kurz’s most loyal allies © Lukas Ilgner

Having dominated out forming a brand new social gathering of his personal, or allying himself with Austria’s liberals, Kurz determined his greatest likelihood was to take over the conservative Individuals’s social gathering and radically rebrand it. He ditched its stuffy imagery and stuffed its supplies with footage of the younger and borrowed from Labour’s Tony Blair in Britain, relabelling it the New Individuals’s Social gathering.

It was all a part of what he and his crew dubbed “mission Ballhausplatz”, paperwork launched as a part of the brand new investigation by prosecutors present, after the title of the palace that homes the Austrian chancellery. The problem was to make himself seem each reliable and credible — first to the outdated guard of the Individuals’s social gathering after which the citizens. Kurz was barely out of his 20s. He had no college schooling, and had spent his complete profession in politics.

The paperwork additionally reveal how ruthless Kurz and his shut crew may very well be. For instance, he intentionally blocked a 2016 social care reform bundle agreed between the then chief of the Individuals’s social gathering and the Austrian social democrats, as a result of he recognised how common it is perhaps. His purpose was to wreck the management of his boss, the incumbent social gathering chief, Reinhold Mitterlehner, who Kurz described as an “arse” in a single message to Thomas Schmid, an in depth ally on the ministry of finance. Austria was run by “outdated fools”, Schmid replied.

Schmid has emerged on the centre of the case being explored by prosecutors. He was certainly one of Kurz’s most formidable and dependable operators. “I’m certainly one of your praetorians,” Schmid texted Kurz in a single 2017 message. “I’ll do something for my chancellor,” he stated in one other.

Schmid was the overall secretary on the finance ministry the place he oversaw the federal price range and the every day operating of the division. His function gave him entry to different departments throughout the federal authorities and, extra importantly, the flexibility to log out on giant expenditures.

Austria’s government is now led by Kurz loyalist Alexander Schallenberg
Austria’s authorities is now led by Kurz loyalist Alexander Schallenberg, centre © Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Pictures

In response to prosecutors, Schmid is suspected of utilizing his place to illicitly funnel €1.2m of finance ministry funds — taxpayers’ cash — in the direction of the media group Österreich, run by Wolfgang Fellner. In return the group allegedly ran polls, cooked up by one other Kurz ally, that had been extremely beneficial to the younger international minister, and painted him as one of the best new chief of the Individuals’s social gathering. The positioned polls painted Mitterlehner — the Individuals’s social gathering chief — as ineffectual and weak.

“I’ve by no means actually gone so far as we’ve,” Schmid wrote in 2018 in a textual content message to Johannes Frischmann, Kurz’s former press spokesperson, that prosecutors cite, within the warrant, as a key piece of proof. “Ingenious funding. And [Wolfgang] Fellner is a capitalist . . . Whoever pays, procures. I really like that.”

Österreich has disputed the allegations. It says it obtained far much less cash from the finance ministry than investigators have claimed. And it denies outright cash — which paid for presidency adverts — was ever conditional on optimistic protection.

‘Political witch hunt’

The investigation, which is being undertaken by the central state prosecutor for financial crimes and corruption, the WKStA, has rocked the Austrian political panorama. However the truth is, it has been brewing for months.

Schmid’s cellphone, for instance — the place the WKStA discovered greater than 300,000 messages — was first confiscated in October 2019. For the previous two years, intrigue upon intrigue gathered across the Kurz authorities.

The Schmid-Österreich affair is the truth is a story of not less than 5 different interlocking alleged conspiracies:

  • The Ibiza affair, during which in 2019 former vice-chancellor and head of the far-right Freedom social gathering, Heinz-Christian Strache, was filmed on the Balearic island soliciting what he thought was Russian assist to affect the Austrian media. A sting operation caught him telling a lady he believed to characterize a strong Russian oligarch that in Austria, political energy was obtained via cash and corruption. He instructed the Russians purchase the nation’s largest newspaper, make it extra optimistic in the direction of him, and in return he would dole out political favours. The revelations led to the collapse of the primary Kurz ministry — a coalition with Strache.

  • The Pilnacek case, during which a high justice ministry official linked to Kurz is alleged to have leaked delicate investigatory data.

  • The Casinos case, during which it’s alleged Individuals’s social gathering and Freedom social gathering officers had been systematically bribed by the Austrian playing trade.

  • Wirecard: the corporate’s chief working officer, Jan Marsalek, was receiving labeled data from Austrian intelligence. Some officers have been charged with receiving bribes.

  • The ÖBAG perjury case, during which Kurz is alleged to have gifted management of the state holding firm, ÖBAG, to Schmid — a extremely profitable function — after which misled parliament about his function in influencing the appointment course of.

In probing these issues, the WKStA — and a parallel parliamentary investigatory committee — have slowly gathered reams of proof.

For Kurz and his supporters, the prosecutorial mission has been nakedly political. They allege the WKStA has selectively used proof, and sought any excuse it will probably to try to achieve warrants to go after Individuals’s social gathering officers. The prosecutor has had a poor document lately of shedding circumstances, they observe. Certainly, they level out that regardless of an entire sequence of accusations from the WKStA few fees have been introduced in opposition to the Kurz authorities.

Sebastian Kurz mixed traditional fiscal conservatism with a dash of social libertarianism in the rebranded People’s party
Sebastian Kurz blended conventional fiscal conservatism with a touch of social libertarianism within the rebranded Individuals’s social gathering © Joe Klamar/AFP by way of Getty Pictures

Kurz and his allies have been accused of attempting to hamper the method — a gambit that has raised the political stakes and led to allegations of proof tampering and makes an attempt to thwart the course of justice. 5 onerous drives had been destroyed by chancellery officers final yr containing data requested by a parliamentary investigation, for instance.

A spokesperson for Kurz declined a request for interview. The previous chancellor has denied wrongdoing, and has indicated he’ll waive his parliamentary immunity to permit prosecutors to proceed to look into his conduct in workplace. Schmid resigned from his place as chief government of ÖBAG earlier this yr. He too has denied any wrongdoing.

The scandal republic

In 1985, the German journal Der Spiegel induced a sensation in Austria, when in an editorial it dubbed the nation Die Skandalrepublik. It listed a sequence of investigations and allegations of corruption in Austrian enterprise and political life.

Nearly 4 many years on the present set of alleged misdemeanours make these of the mid-Nineteen Eighties appear quaint. However additionally they recommend an everlasting political mindset.

“All through Austrian political historical past you may have these form of incidents,” says Marcus How, head of research on the central European political consultancy VE Insights. “Actually you may in all probability inform your entire historical past of recent Austria simply via the historical past of its scandals. There have been so many.”

Certainly, many in Austria have been fast to attract parallels with Kurz’s alleged funds for optimistic protection with an alleged scheme to do the identical that entangled social democratic politicians simply over a decade in the past.

“Austria likes to market itself as a mini-Germany however actually it’s extra of a [central] japanese European and even Balkan nation in its tradition and constructions — and the way in which during which they’re misused,” says How.

In Austria this method during which energy is exercised via allies is named the Parteibuchwirtschaft. As a part of it, loyalists are levered into key positions of affect throughout society by whoever sits on the high. When the social democrats are in energy, social democrats get the large jobs. Vice versa, when the Individuals’s social gathering is in management, positions go to its placemen.

“In Austria, each firm, each establishment, actually has a political orientation of its personal,” says one senior Individuals’s social gathering strategist. “It’s the legacy of how the nation was pulled collectively after the conflict. I can let you know which corporations are social democrat and that are Individuals’s social gathering, it actually does work like that.”

“In a way it is a very catholic legacy too,” says How. “A form of counter-reformation fashion of energy with guilds and societies and fraternities that every one work behind the scenes.”

Kurz, if something, says How, needed to work additional onerous to navigate this tradition, as a result of his youth and lack of a robust base inside the Individuals’s social gathering put him at a drawback. The aggressiveness of his extremely-tightly knit inside circle — figures akin to Schmid — in attempting to manoeuvre a brand new, younger technology of Kurz ultra-loyalists into positions of affect, and their obvious lack of scruples in doing so, is the driving drive behind a lot of the alleged wrongdoings.

“The ‘Kurz-system’ because the opposition frames it, is definitely one thing that reaches far again, farther again than Kurz,” says Hofer. “All Kurz [allegedly] actually did is take it to a different stage.”

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