Austria post #Ibiza – what’s happening?

Austria post #Ibiza – what’s happening?

Christina Trapl June 2019

Unlocking the impact of Austria’s “Ibiza scandal” on the state’s political reputation

A motion of no confidence against former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (People’s Party – ÖVP), a disorientated Social Democratic Party, a far right FPÖ in dissolution, the President Alexander Van der Bellen as crisis manager – in last month, the scandal around the “Ibiza video” has taken Austrian politics on a rollercoaster ride that is unparalleled in Austrian post-war history. It is safe to assume that events will influence Austria`s political reputation on the international level.

Let’s start from the beginning. On May 17, a video appeared in the German and then Austrian media showing the former Vice-Chancellor of Austria and far right party leader (FPÖ – one of the parties in the governing coalition) Heinz Christian Strache planning media takeovers and promising government contracts to a woman claiming to be the niece of a Russian oligarch.

String of reactions & free interplay of forces

The video initiated a chain reaction of political earthquakes: Strache resigning as Vice Chancellor, the resulting total resignation of his Ministers and replacing them with technocrat placeholders on May 22.

On Monday, May 27, the Social Democrats, the FPÖ and the Liste JETZT backed a motion of no confidence in Parliament against Chancellor Kurz. The next day Van der Bellen dismissed the Government, and on June 3 inaugurated the new Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein and her Cabinet. Bierlein is the former President of the Constitutional Court and now the first female Chancellor in Austria’s history. Van der Bellen, whose personal popularity rating has significantly increased since “Ibizagate”, claims to have restored political stability. So, all good? Not really.

Austria is now facing a situation in which this “Caretaker Government” has no majority in Parliament, whereas the five political parties in Parliament are in full election cycle mode. All parties are exploiting this situation to push their key initiatives to make political capital before the upcoming National Council elections on September 29. In political jargon, this situation is called the “free play of forces”: all parties voting in Parliament as they wish, trying to pave the way for numerous laws before elections in autumn.

This may sound good in theory, but critics are already lamenting the lack of an overall budget concept.

How did “Ibizagate” affect the EU elections results?

On Election Day, May 26, all eyes were on the motion of no-confidence against Chancellor Kurz and his government, which took place the day after the EU elections.  While “Ibizagate” dominated the headlines in the national media for over a week, Austrian EU top candidates had a hard time getting their messages across.

The scandal also made waves on the international level. German Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised the risk of “destroying the Europe of our values” by far-right politicians. Even Marine Le Pen of France’s far-right National Rally (RN) distanced herself from the video, and the ”Spitzenkandidat” of the European People’s Party (EPP), Manfred Weber, warned that the Ibiza scandal showed that “these extremists must not be able to influence our Europe”.

In the EU elections, however, Strache’s far-right party did not crash completely, losing just 2.2 percentage points compared to the 19.7% it gained in 2014.  

Furthermore, the fact that Strache received 46,000 preferential votes in the EU elections cast doubt on whether he would restart his career in Brussels, having  only declined his EU mandate.

Austria’s damaged reputation after “Ibizagate”

After the Ibiza video and the end of the ÖVP/FPÖ government, it’s hard to imagine that Chancellor Kurz will form another coalition with the FPÖ, saying “It is clear that the Ibiza video and, above all, the FPÖ’s unwillingness to investigate the accusations of corruption that arose from it have led to the end of this government.” However, he did welcome the fact that “After years of dispute, a government in the coalition finally spoke with one voice.”

Kurz also made it clear in a recent interview with the local newspaper Die Kleine Zeitung that Austria would have more influence at the EU level with him as Chancellor. “We all have a duty to support the transitional government as best we can. But of course, the Republic currently does not have the weight at the European level that it had a few months ago.”

With a view to the EU summit on June 20/21 the Chancellor Bierlein is expected to push for Manfred Weber as President of the European Commission. But who will be Chancellor of Austria at the end of the year is anyone’s guess.