Austria: Chancellor Kurz resigns amid allegations of corruption

Austria's new Chancellor, Alexander Schallenberg (Photo: IAEA Imagebank/CC)

Sebastian Kurz, for five years a shooting star of the European conservatives, had to “step aside” as Austria’s Chancellor on 9 October. His resignation comes amid criminal investigations against those closest to him and with allegations of fraud, and of activities that were, at best, “deeply immoral” and at worst illegal.

This is by no means the first corruption scandal rocking Austria. In 2019 a scandal wrecked Kurz’s then coalition with the far-right Freedom party. This was the so-called “Ibiza Scandal” of the then Freedom Party leader HC Strache being filmed discussing helping someone he thought was a Russian oligarch’s niece buy the biggest Austrian tabloid, Die Krone, (“The Crown”), in return for favourable publicity in the run-up to 2017.

This time, the media scandal involved the “Österreich” (“Austria”) tabloid which Kurz allegedly cooperated with to forge polls and paid to get friendly media coverage when he was building his political career in 2016/7.

More than 300,000 chat messages were found on the confiscated phone of Thomas Schmid, General Secretary of the finance ministry in 2016, and, it seems, a close ally of Sebastian Kurz. In the messages found, Schmid and other allies of Kurz plotted to have the finance ministry pay for fake opinion polls that helped get Kurz to the top of his conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) in 2017.

Austria is a small country of about nine million people, with an even smaller media landscape. Over the years, the privately-owned capitalist media, especially the tabloids, have grown increasingly reliant on newspaper ads by the state, as other public funding of the media – apart from the state-owned broadcasting corporation – was insufficient and the media had found themselves in crisis for years. This went as far as some tabloids such as ‘Österreich’ blackmailing politicians to give them bad coverage if they do not buy ads. Political parties had threatened to cut the number of ads if the newspaper coverage did not improve. In the chats among the “Kurz circle” it read like this: “Fellner (the owner of tabloid ‘Österreich’) is a capitalist, he who pays decides what is written”. It is clear that the cause of all this corruption is the rotten capitalist system.

This is just the top of the allegations. The scandals have grown so numerous that it is hard to keep track.

While Kurz tried to cling to power in the first days after news broke of the unprecedented raids of the Chancellery and the ÖVP headquarters, it seems that he increasingly had to face pressure from inside his own party. In 2017 he had secured himself power in his party that made him largely independent of the powerful regional heads of the ÖVP. It seems now that this power was only on paper and as long as Kurz won elections for them.

Conservatives in turmoil

The People’s Party and Kurz have lost around 10% in recent polls (some placed them at 27%, others at 26% compared with nearly 37.5% in the 2019 election). Before the recent events, Kurz had held on to up to 35% despite ongoing investigations by the Wiener Korruptionsstaatsanwaltschaft (WKStA, a special judiciary body investigating corruption). The most recent revelations must have been too much for his voters and the regional heads of the ÖVP too.

While Kurz had changed his party’s colours from black to turquoise, it seems that some of the regional heads of the ÖVP, such as Tyrolean regional governor Günther Platter, who faces local elections next year, want to go “back to black”.

The ÖVP regional heads seem to have made Kurz realise he would have to “step aside” given the allegations. Some insiders of the ÖVP say, “Kurz and his circle have not realised yet they have been ousted, but it’s game over for them”.

Before that, the ÖVP’s coalition partner, the Green Party, made clear that they will only continue the coalition if Kurz steps back – basically an ultimatum. If the Greens had not done that they would have fallen apart as their rank and file would have rebelled. For a while, it looked as if an all-party coalition, including the far-right FPÖ, could have replaced the coalition of the ÖVP and the Greens, an extremely broad coalition comparable to the one in Israel. Eventually, the ÖVP was too eager to stay in power and agreed to sacrifice Kurz. Either as senior or junior partner, the ÖVP had been part of Austrian federal governments since 1986 and has not been in opposition since.

When Kurz finally announced his resignation, a sigh of relief went through the Austrian capitalist class, as an all-party coalition would have been highly unstable, especially given the anti-vaccine position of the FPÖ in a period when the pandemic is not over yet.

For now, Kurz is holding on to the office as ÖVP party leader and has taken office as head of its parliamentary fraction (“club”). It seems that as a member of parliament he will get immunity, but his party has already pledged to lift that immunity.

Kurz’s place as Chancellor has been taken by Alexander Schallenberg, former minister of the exterior. Schallenberg comes from the former aristocracy who became a family of diplomats and is said to be close to Kurz but not involved in the scandals. Schallenberg has already made clear that he aligns himself with Kurz and “believes in Kurz’s innocence”. It remains open, though, how this will develop in the future, as more revelations are suspected to be made public over time.

It is possible that the deeper the investigations go, that Kurz might have no alternative but to give up all his positions, but this is really too early to call. Kurz’s initial hope that he could go into new elections and style himself as the ‘victim’ has already been crushed by the massive loss in the polls.

All this comes at a time of unrest within Austrian society – this week saw big protests by kindergarten teachers. The Tuesday after Kurz resigned 5,000 kindergarten teachers from the private sector stopped work for a demonstration, and two days later another 1,000 public sector kindergarten teachers demonstrated. They are demanding more staff, higher wages and not be ignored in the middle of the pandemic. Some of the many self-made banners and placards referred to the Kurz scandals, saying, “Spart das Geld bei Inseraten, steckt es in den Kindergarten” (‘Don’t put money in media ads, put it into childcare’). One of the revelations implied that Kurz had, in order to further his career, manipulated a regional government into resistance to stop a reform by a previous ÖVP-SPÖ coalition that would have given more money to schools and childcare.

A demonstration of the education sector workers against cuts and for better education is planned for 19 October. The metalworkers are also heading for a confrontation with the bosses over a pay claim. Regional shop steward conferences of the metal sector have been announced for next week, to discuss further measures.

The Left

In addition, the communist party (KPÖ) won city elections in Graz, Styria, two weeks earlier, shocking the ruling class. The huge contrast between the corruption of the Kurz’s circle with the approach of the KPÖ in Styria of only taking a workers’ wage for political office and donating the balance to causes, has been widely noted. A recent opinion poll showed 70% thought it would be good if politicians only took a workers’ wage like the KPÖ does in Graz. This shows how the long history of corruption and disappointment with the main parties has created an opportunity for an alternative to be built – the question is who will take the initiative?

In this situation, it is more urgent than ever to build a new workers’ party that can point to a way out. Both the SPÖ and the Greens have proven by their government participation that they cannot be trusted and that they firmly support the capitalist system. The SPÖ has been part of governments that have introduced cuts, while the Greens’ new “eco” tax reform is making working class people pay for climate change instead of big business. The SPÖ’s own corruption has been one of the reasons for their decline. In contrast, such a new party would have to channel all the protests that are currently taking place and be a tool in the struggle, as well as a place where workers and youth can discuss which programme they need.

The KPÖ Styria and LINKS Wien (a small new left formation with 23 district councillors in Vienna) have the responsibility to take initiatives in this direction. LINKS Wien is beginning to develop an ability to mobilise. On 7 October, the day after the police raids, they took the initiative to call a protest, in which they, together with other organisations, mobilised up to 7,000 people. After the elections in Graz, opinion polls were published placing the KPÖ federally at 4%. Beyond that, 42% think the KPÖ under Graz’s Elke Kahr is a party they could, in principle, vote for.

It is very likely that the now very unstable situation will lead to new elections within months. The KPÖ Graz and LINKS Wien, as well as the left in general, should take initiative to unite the protests that are taking place and channel them into steps towards a new party. Such an election alliance would be a concrete step forward and a way to try to attract support from those who have been involved in struggles and activate some of those who have voted ‘left’ recently.

To draw together these wider forces such an initiative needs to be open, not top-down, and have a clear set of demands as a starting point for discussion about a programme. While such an alliance would be extremely unlikely to win the next election, its aim must be to use the election campaign to popularise its demands, encourage mobilisation and participation so it can strengthen itself, get a foothold in parliament, which then can be used as a platform for which to mobilise both popular opposition and support for socialist ideas. These would be steps towards building a party and  movement that can break with the rotten and corrupt capitalist system and replace it with a socialist society that can end need and make sure corruption is a thing of the past.

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October 2021