Ibiza-gate and its fallouts


23.05.2019  |  Johannes Amann

A weekend in May and an island of Spain. No more than that was required to cause a political scandal which may yet amount to a seismic shift in the political landscape of Austria.

When Der Spiegel and the Süddeutsche Zeitung released the video late on Friday afternoon, few would have predicted the magnitude of the outcry that would follow. Seasoned observers of the ongoings of domestic politics might have been forgiven for adopting a cynical outlook on the ramifications of a scandal by a party that has delivered them with regularity, in a country that has met them with little more than fatalism. No one could have predicted that the video would lead to events that saw the resignation of Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, put an end to the governing coalition, and leave the country in turmoil. No one could have foreseen that the word Ibiza would become synonymous with the corruption and hypocrisy of the far-right.

Strache certainly did not. For years, the Balearic Island had served as his holiday destination of choice, a symbol of his bond with his electorate, contrasting him to the ‘elitist’ mainstream politicians who prefer to spend their vacations in more luxurious environments. Now it would forever be associated with the ignominious end to his 14-year spell as chairman of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ).

There is certainly an irony in the fact that Strache, who led his party to success by promising simple answers to complex issues, laid bare the corruption of his party in such a blatant way that everyone could understand it. Duped into accepting a meeting with an alleged Russian billionaire, and fuelled by – at least – copious amounts of Vodka Red Bull (his choice of energy drink having been his most patriotic action of said evening), he proceeded to offer this potential investor, a woman he had never met before, virtually everything his country has to offer.

Public contracts, previously fulfilled by political opponents, could be hers for the taking. Privatising the public broadcasting company ORF was in the plans, following the shining example of neighbouring Hungary. Even selling the Austrian drinking water supplies, a taboo in Austrian politics, was not inconceivable. All this in exchange for an illegal campaign donation between half a million and two million euro, as other investors, readily named by Strache, had already done. Perhaps most critically, he promised her help in acquiring a stake in the tabloid Kronen Zeitung, a media behemoth and long-standing centre of political power in Austria. If such a takeover could come about, Strache surmised, critical journalists in the newspaper would be replaced by partisans, and his party could gain 7 percentage points in the following elections.

The undisguised corruption and brazenness displayed in the hidden recordings sent shock waves throughout Europe and electrified the Austrian populace. Throughout this weekend in May, the word Ibiza dominated every public and private discussion. Televised discussion rounds were shown in bars and coffee shops. Thousands of people gathered in front of the offices of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz on Saturday, demanding, with growing impatience, a public statement.

Kurz had not foreseen this reaction either. This was the first time he had to face a coalition crisis as head of government. Before, the two governing parties had outwardly projected a sense of harmony with admirable discipline. The government was doing well in polls, the opposition parties were ineffective, and the People’s Party (ÖVP) had cunningly tried to exploit the inevitable run-of-the-mill scandals that arise from the FPÖ’s occasional proximity to Nazi ideology by pointing out that theirs was the ‘presentable’ right wing party.

Kurz had no reason to suspect that this weekend in May should prove any different. Thus, while Strache announced his resignation, and the public grew increasingly impatient, Kurz tried to use his coalition partner’s misery to his advantage. According to FPÖ ministers, he demanded the resignation of the interior minister Herbert Kickl, chief culprit of many of the aforementioned scandals, whose policies reflect the same problematic view of democratic freedoms that Strache expresses in the Ibiza video. In return, Kickl could have any other ministry, while the ÖVP would take over the interior ministry. If those demands were met, Kurz was willing to continue the coalition.

In this, the usually impeccably astute tactician seems to have made a severe miscalculation. The pressure from the streets outside his office as well as from fellow European politicians, in particular from the German CDU/CSU (where he is revered as the embodiment of an alternative to Merkel’s conservatism), soon made it clear that carrying on with the coalition was an untenable proposition. The ambitious Kurz was not ready to risk a potential future in European politics over a coalition fraught with scandal. Instead, on Saturday evening, more than 24 hours after the publication of the video, he announced that he had no choice but to terminate the coalition with the Freedom Party and call for snap elections.

Since then, Kurz has tried to mitigate the fallout of this misstep. A gambler like his political idol, former Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, he doubled down on his bet by insisting on Kickl’s removal from office, which prompted the resignation of the other FPÖ ministers and risks a vote of no confidence against Kurz himself. Irrespective of the outcome of this vote, the political chaos caused by these events is certainly not beneficial in a country that values stability and consensus. Some observers wonder whether Kurz has lost his Midas touch and aura of invulnerability.

Yet, he may still emerge victorious from this situation. In 2002 Schüssel had managed such a feat when the Freedom Party’s infighting netted him 42 percent of the vote and reduced the FPÖ to 10 percent. It is clear that Kurz will be using this strategy of wooing disappointed FPÖ voters by emphasizing stability. Backed by the Kronen Zeitung and other tabloid media – including the German Bild – and running against a rather tame opposition, Kurz at this stage is the frontrunner, although he might be running out of coalition partners after the last two marriages ended in an acrimonious divorce.

The FPÖ meanwhile seems determined to drag down Kurz down the abyss it is facing. It will continue to portray itself as the victim to dark forces, pointing out the suspicious timing of the release of this two-year-old video, and the fact that it was released by German media. If the video had indeed been intended to hurt the extreme right ahead next Sunday’s European elections, it had the effect of re-nationalising the political debate in Austria. In the current climate, the EU election seems little more than an afterthought.

Conventional wisdom and first polls suggest that disaffected FPÖ voters will spend the next weekend in May at home, leading to a painful electoral defeat and dealing a significant blow to the European right-wing alliance in one of its strongholds. It is also true that the Kronen Zeitung is now campaigning heavily against the FPÖ, which might cost the party 7 percentage points or more.

However, it is premature to celebrate the demise of the Freedom Party. It has an effective ground organisation, in Norbert Hofer a candidate who in 2016 nearly got 50% of the votes for president, and, according to Strache’s Ibiza confessions, donors with deep pockets and tight lips. A weekend and an island will not be enough to defeat the threat of the extreme right. Not in Austria, and not in Europe.