ANALYSIS – Austria’s Sebastian Kurz leaves post, his system stays to rule
Mounting pressure forces Kurz to resign after probe authorities raided offices, but opposition says his system remains in place
The writer is pursuing a doctorate in International Relations at Turkey-based Sakarya University with a specialization in domestic politics of Austria and Germany
For almost two years, while the world has been struggling to combat the coronavirus pandemic, the landlocked Central European country of Austria is shaken by the scandals of corruption.
The first allegations of corruption erupted in May 2019 against the deputy prime minister of the coalition government of the Austrian People’s Party (OVP) and Freedom Party of Austria (FPO). It was followed by similar allegations against Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz dusted out during the period he headed the coalition government of OVP and Green Party from 2016-2018.
Last week, police forces accompanied by investigators of the Central State Prosecutor for Economic Crime and Corruption (WKStA) raided the OVP headquarters, Finance Ministry, and Kurz’s offices. Prosecutors reported that the officials confiscated Kurz’s and several politicians' cell phones and certain documents to expand the investigation, adding that nine others as well as three institutions were included in the investigation. The probe reportedly relates to complaints of corruption, bribery, and abuse of trust.
It can be beneficial to take a look at Kurz’s administrative system, briefly known as “System Kurz”, whose reputation spread beyond the country’s borders. The first step of the system included bringing the people in the close circle of Kurz to appropriate positions, the second involved using the sources of the prominent institutions of the country for Kurz’s and OVP’s interests, the third included “funding the media to produce appropriate news” in exchange for awarding them with the advertisements, and the fourth involved repressing the judicial authorities who looked into/investigated the irregularities revealed by the Parliamentary Investigation Commission which was founded particularly due to the Ibiza affair.
The Ibiza affair is a political scandal involving Heinz-Christian Strache, the former vice-chancellor, and leader of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), and Johann Gudenus, a deputy leader of the Freedom Party.
Greed for power
Austria has been added to the list of countries within the European Union (EU) that diverged from the principles of rule of law alongside Hungary and Poland. While Hungary and Poland have an excuse due to the political system that they had gone through during the Cold War, Austria has never had such a handicap. Still, Kurz’s greed for power did not keep him from treading on the principles of rule of law.
It was earlier believed that Austria’s political climate was disrupted by the far-right communities. However, starting from 2013 when Kurz was acting foreign minister, OVP firstly adopted the arguments of far-rightists, and later joined hands with the FPO, which is a right-wing populist and national-conservative political party in Austria.
It also turned out that the circles that got involved in the “System Kurz” established with his leadership caught up with and even went beyond FPO in terms of not only ideology but also corrupting the operating culture. A great many specialists in the field indicate that the recent developments are merely the tip of the iceberg.
At this point, having been interrogated for “making false statements” Kurz has faced a greater accusation before he was cleared of blame, and had to resign due to the political pressure if not because of the accusations he failed to answer so far.
The “System Kurz” seems to have been deeply hurt after Kurz had to resign and recommend Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg from his close circle for the top post. Nevertheless, the resignation of the premier does not mean the end of the system, as observed in the statements of the opposition front, because the team Kurz continues their duties, chiefly Schallenberg who replaced him.
While expecting Kurz to take over the chairpersonship of the party as well as the group presidency in the parliament, it is not hard to predict that Kurz’s influence will continue in the final decisions. Especially the right to participate in the Cabinet that will be provided by OVP Parliamentary Group Presidency indicates that the resignation is a tactical maneuver.
Armor of immunity
On the other hand, Kurz obtained the armor of immunity through his resignation. According to Heinz Mayer, one of the most reputable constitutional legal experts in the country, the parliament should lift Kurz’s immunity for the continuation of the lawsuit against him. Mayer said that the condition also applies to the ongoing “false statements” case. In the Austrian press, however, Kurz proclaims that he will vote positively for the lifting of his immunity in case it is brought to the parliament.
There are two views as to what lies behind Kurz’s resignation: First of these is Kurz resigned by his own will to protect the state and the party from further damage. For the sake of appearance, OVP leaders defended this view noting that Kurz “acted nobly” with his decision to resign. The Austrian media has frequently commented that Kurz was forced to resign by active politicians including OVP’s state premiers and administrators. Although we do not know the entire fact, for the time being, it is possible to say that the second view that he was forced to resign is more reasonable, as the comments as to the developments came to the point to damage OVP rather than solely Kurz. One of the most obvious pieces of evidence for this is that the Greens dared to reject a government that included Kurz. It is noteworthy that the Greens has not taken such a step in other moments of crises since the formation of the government.
Also, Kurz's statements against the Catholic Church in the messages shared with the public in the context of the Ibiza Scandal damaged the traditionally very good Church-OVP relationship. As it is known, the fact that Kurz has been following far-right policies on the refugee issue for years also met with question marks by the Church. In this context, the trust of the Catholic Church circles in Kurz seems to have eroded considerably.
In the OVP, a group of the older generation, which can be described as "white-haired people", are not satisfied with Kurz and his way of doing politics. While this group saw Kurz's real face for the first time indirectly during the "undermining" of Reinhold Mitterlehner -- former OVP leader and deputy prime minister of the Social Democratic Party-OVP Government -- by Kurz and his team since 2016. They had the opportunity to understand directly in 2017 when he assumed the leadership of the party.
Ahead of the elections held on Dec. 18, 2017, Kurz gave an ultimatum to the notables of his party, briefly demanding unlimited power to dominate his team and policy within the party, otherwise, he threatened going with a new formation. Of course, this attitude, laced with a lack of morals and principles was ignored as long as it "won/succeeded", but it did not work for him when things went wrong.
Radical transformation of political culture
Since the Austrian People's Party took over the lead through intrigue and dirty politics, the country's political culture has undergone radical transformations, driven by Kurz's boundless ambition for power. Kurz not only has the title of "the youngest prime minister of Austria and the world" but is also recorded now as a chancellor who was forced to resign as a result of a corruption probe against him.
In the absence of a radical transformation in Austria, a political climate is formed in which extreme right-wing ideas are at the center of the ideological plane and the parties will more or less position themselves according to this. In this process, a political transformation is taking place in which many "boundaries", including the principles of the rule of law, will be eroded.
Contrary to the expectations of many people who know Austria closely, it is not far-right circles that drive the last nail in the country's coffin but the irony of history is that a political circle including the two greatest founding cadres of the state came into contact with it.
*Writing by Dilan Pamuk and Gozde Bayar
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