“When we see what is being solved in our country, this would probably fit in our country,” says Kateřina Vnoučková from the Institute of International Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University, about the Sebastian Kurz affair. The case broke out last week on Wednesday in a police raid on the headquarters of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and in the Chancellery. This was followed by accusations of corruption and embezzlement of the Chancellor’s surroundings, as well as the Prime Minister himself.
The affair with clinking polls
“In 2016, when Kurz was not yet the chairman of the party, he had to order surveys in Österreich, a daily distributed mostly free of charge, for example at the metro, through an intermediary, which showed that his predecessor Reinhold Mitterlehner is little popular and that the People’s Party is declining. The course was supposed to portray it as a politician who can save them, “explains Vnoučková, the essence of the case, which shook Austrian politics. Surveys were paid in the newspapers as advertisements.
“It is normal for the government or ministries to place advertisements in newspapers, but the accusation is that the money for the advertisements was based on celebratory articles that looked independent and surveys that were formed independently,” adds the Austrian policy expert. The affair cost Kurze a place in the government – after pressure from the coalition Greens, he was replaced on Monday by the current head of diplomacy, Alexander Schallenberg. In an interview with Seznam Zprávy, Vnoučková describes the consequences of the scandal on Austrian politics.
Who is Alexander Schallenberg? What can be expected from him?
Schallenberg is a long-time close collaborator of Sebastian Kurz. Already when Kurz was Minister of Foreign Affairs, Schallenberg held senior clerical positions there. Schallenberg is a diplomat and civil servant in the Austrian Foreign Service for a long time, and his involvement in the caretaker government following the Ibiza affair (an affair with a recording from the island of Ibiza, which “sank” the then Vice-Chancellor under the Free Heinz-Christian Strach and led to the fall of Kurz’s first government in the spring of 2017, note. ed.).
Schallenberg is definitely a person loyal to the Course, and the political course will not change fundamentally. He will have a difficult position because he does not hold any significant position in the People’s Party.
Schallenberg does not seem to me to be a strong figure who promotes his views and is a leading politician. Indeed, he is an official who works for his country and does not show his views.
To what extent can Schallenberg be an autonomous chancellor? Can’t the Slovak scenario, for example, be repeated, when Robert Fico was replaced by Peter Pellegrini, who then became independent? How popular is Schallenberg?
Schallenberg does not seem to me to be a strong figure who promotes his views and is a leading politician. Indeed, he is an official who works for his country and does not show his views. In my opinion, it is likely that the main course of politics will be further determined by Sebastian Kurz and the People’s Party, and Schallenberg will be their servant.
What is Sebastian Kurz’s position now when he withdraws into seclusion in parliament?
He withdraws, but still wants to keep his position in the party. The People’s Party has no significant personality to replace him. The course retains the position of party chairman and takes over the position of chairman of the parliamentary group and wants to remain the main figure of the party, even if he is not in government. He will now try to purge himself, and if he succeeds and the allegations prove insufficient, he may want to lead the government as its president until the next election.
There will probably be no election
So early elections are not a realistic scenario now?
Not at the moment, because the government has the support of a coalition partner, and therefore the opposition parties do not have a majority to express no confidence. However, if another case appeared or if another figure from the people’s side appeared in the cases, it might already be unbearable for the Greens. But the course has now met their demand, so the government should continue now.
So the Cohesion was forced to resign by his coalition partner – the Greens?
Yes, they insisted for a long time that the presumption of innocence should be honored and wait until everything was resolved, but as the accusations increased and the evidence increased, they demanded the resignation of Sebastian Kurz.
There is also speculation in the Austrian media that the Kurz has great support in the People’s Party, but that it also traditionally has opponents in the figures of the provincial governors – such a balancing wing. Kurz has already entered politics, saying that it wants to weaken the power of provincial politicians, and the Austrian media now write that it was these provincial politicians who opposed Kurz, and that they were the ones who called on him to resign, and therefore counterbalanced Kurz in the party. there is.
Who is the new Austrian Chancellor?
Alexander Schallenberg is a 52-year career diplomat, lawyer and politician, a member of the Austrian People’s Party. He has been working in diplomacy for more than 20 years. He was born in Bern, Switzerland, where his father was the Austrian ambassador. He comes from an aristocratic family whose family seat was located in Sankt Ulrich im Mühlkreis in Upper Austria.
He worked as a spokesman for two foreign ministers and led Austrian diplomacy himself from 2019 in Brigitte Bierlein’s caretaker government and retained his position in the second Kurz government. It has in common with Kurz, to whom he is a close collaborator, for example, restrictive views on migration and a reserved approach to the rule of law dispute in Poland and Hungary. He is divorced and has four children.
What is the trend of preferences now? Do the People’s Party still have an unshakable position?
No poll has emerged since the case, but the People’s Party held on to 35 percent, the autumn 2019 election result. Previous exchange rate cases have not been supported, but it is possible that the current impact will have, because it is corruption.
Sebastian Kurz went into politics saying that it meant change and that he would break the old ties between politics and the media and clientelism, but now it turns out that he may have been a part of it, which may lead to a loss of public support.
The current case sounds seemingly simple – it is about alleged corruption and embezzlement and influencing polls in Kurz’s favor. But is it understandable to the public?
After the evidence and text messages that were published, there is almost no doubt that this happened, but there is the question of the extent to which Sebastian Kurz influenced it. The course is hindered in public appearances by the fact that he did not work at the Ministry of Finance at the time, and the Ministry of Finance was the one who paid the advertisements and thus drew on taxpayers’ money. The question is whether the course had any leverage, but he was not the one to decide on the money.
The course did not stop this case, but the previous one did. What were the cases?
There is a significant suspicion about Kurz’s collaborator Thomas Schmid, who is also involved in the current case with media outlets – he was the mediator between Kurz, ministries and publishers. In the previous case from the spring of this year, it was that the Exchange rate was to install Schmid in the state investment fund ÖBAG (Austrian shareholding, as, a holding company that manages state shares in various companies, editor’s note). The accusation against Kurz is due to an allegedly false statement before a parliamentary commission – Kurz was supposed to claim that Schmid was not installed at his request, but there are probably other statements and evidence.
What makes the current case different, was it the last straw, or a case so big he couldn’t stand it? The chancellor went through several stages over the course of several days: first he defended himself, he spoke of the presumption of innocence, the People’s Party spoke of a biased prosecutor’s office, but in the end the chancellor resigned after three days.
It was certainly the last straw, but at the same time, in this case, it is significant that it is corruption, not a crooked statement. It is already about taxpayers’ money and bribery, and it is an order of magnitude higher charge. It is also important that the coalition partner no longer succeeded – the Greens had a decisive say.
What role did President Alexander Van der Bellen play in this, who had a series of meetings with representatives of political parties the day after the outbreak of the case? Did he act as a mediator or an active player?
Van der Bellen tries to stay in the background as much as possible and acts as a mediator, firmly honoring the constitution and taking only the steps that are needed. However, he does not put his opinions or initiatives into it.
What can be expected from the events within the coalition of the People’s Party and the Greens? I read that now Sebastian Kurz, from the position of the head of the People’s Parliamentary Club, will try to avenge the coalitions a little and “kick his ankles”, in addition he will have immunity. How will it work now?
The Austrian media write that the coalition was pulled well by the tandem Sebastian Kurz-Werner Kogler, the chairman of the Green Vice-Chancellor. Now the question is how well Kogler and Schallenberg will fit together. Kogler understands the course and they were able to overcome the program differences between the parties. But I do not think that will change significantly, and if no further cases arise, the government will be able to continue and reach a negotiation of the tax reform they are seeking.
The course said he would not use parliamentary immunity, and if prosecuted, he would support it because he wanted the charges to be investigated as soon as possible. He therefore declares that he is not going to the parliamentary seat due to immunity.
What does Kurz’s fall mean for Central Europe, for which he was a visible figure?
Central European politics thus loses its significant personality, on the other hand, in its views on the EU and migration, Kurz is similar with the new Chancellor Schallenberg, and the tendency to be stricter on migration is likely to continue.
How does the Chancellor’s exchange resonate with the Austrian public?
For the part of the public who supported Kurz, it can be a great disappointment that Kurz wanted to be that change. This corruption case may be an exclamation point for them, that it still belongs to the old structures and system, and that no change has come with it.
From the Czech point of view, Kurz’s resignation was probably quite unexpected, but this is not the first political affair in Austria in recent years. Is the Austrian political scene similar to the Czech one?
Probably on a different scale. When I read it for the first time, it didn’t seem like anything very important to me, because when we see what is being solved in our country, this would probably fit in our country. It has to do with the Ibiza affair and its investigation – the parliamentary commission has begun to look at further actions and cases, and thus Austrian politics is now under greater control.