A corruption scandal has jeopardised the far-right’s position in Austria’s governing coalition. Last week, a video was published showing their leader offering government contracts to the supposed niece of a Russian oligarch. Vice-chancellor and leader of the far-right Freedom party (FPO), Heinz-Christian Strache, has since resigned in a scandal that has shaken Austrian politics, and reverberated across the continent.
The centre-right People’s Party (OVP) formed a coalition government with the FPO in December 2017, with the FPO gaining control of half the cabinet including defence, the interior, and foreign affairs. FPO policies include cutting benefits for refugees, blocking immigrants from accessing social services for five years, and ruling out a referendum on Austria’s membership of the EU.
The video, which was filmed in 2017 before the FPO entered government, shows Mr Strache speaking with the woman for around six hours in a luxurious Ibiza villa. They agreed that the woman would buy a 50 percent stake in a major Austrian newspaper and change its editorial policy to support the FPO. Vox has reported that Mr Strache hoped to emulate the restrictive press freedom of President Orbán’s Hungary. In return, the FOP would award her company government contracts.
However, this was all a setup: the woman didn’t actually represent an oligarch. The Russian government has denied any involvement and it is not yet clear who was behind this sting operation.
The video was released on Friday and Mr Strache resigned the next day following a protest of five thousand people in Vienna. In a move that marks the end of the coalition, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has since called for a fresh election, which is expected in September.
On Monday, Mr Kurz asked the president to dismiss the interior minister, the FPO’s Herbert Kickl, to ensure a ‘complete, and transparent investigation’ into the scandal. As party chairman in 2017, Mr Kickl would have been responsible for the party’s finances. All FPO ministers have vowed to resign if Mr Kickl is removed. It is not yet clear whether this will go ahead.
It is also not clear whether Mr Kurz will face a no-confidence vote next week, although one lawmaker has vowed to put forward a motion of no-confidence on Monday. Whilst the domestic implications are still emerging, the fall of the FOP will have strong implications for Europe’s nationalist movement.
With people across the EU voting in European elections from May 23 – 25, nationalists across the continent have looked to each other for support. The Financial Times has reported that Mr Strache had been working with Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen to form a powerful Eurosceptic group in the European parliament. And last week, Mr Salvini led a rally in Milan for European nationalists. Whilst some scholars see international solidarity between far-right parties as a cause of their recent success, the fall of the FOP will undermine the bloc’s collective ability to accuse the establishment of corruption and dishonesty.
For the continent, the EU election results will make the scandal’s implications clearer. For Austria, the consequences will take longer to emerge.