Austrian neutrality falters as party allegiances split

Austrian neutrality falters as party allegiances split

The potential return of a pro-Russia, right-wing coalition government will concern the country’s allies.

WHAT’S HAPPENING?

Austria looks likely to re-elect its youngest-ever head of state amidst the country’s deepening struggle to hold on to its centuries-old doctrine of neutrality.

KEY INSIGHTS

– Sebastian Kurz says he is ready to renew a coalition with Austria’s far-right Freedom Party, which has lost little ground amongst voters despite being embroiled in scandal
– The revival of this coalition would push strict border security higher on the EU agenda even as the bloc makes moves to renegotiate the Dublin Accords
– Clear lines between the Austrian far-right and the Kremlin continue to spook the country’s Western allies, while domestic measures aimed at alleviating their concerns fall short

Austria is set to hold fresh elections at the end of the month following the collapse of its governing coalition earlier this year. The coalition folded after the release of video footage mired the far-right Freedom Party’s (FPO) two most senior members in allegations of corruption and collusion with foreign powers. Under a caretaker government since early June, the country looks likely to re-elect former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who was in power until the scandal broke and is still well-liked. The latest polls by Politico show him maintaining a 12-point lead over his nearest rival.

Kurz’s re-election would see the return of a government with a hardline stance on immigration and an increased focus on migrant integration. Amongst his proposed policies is increased monitoring and documentation of Austria’s Muslim population and mosques. His return would also place Austria in an even stronger position to pressure policymakers at the European level to expand the resources and mandate of the EU’s border patrol agency, Frontex, in order to stem the flow of migrants.  The timing of this is crucial as the EU’s largest nations announce a new migrant distribution system this month, and France throws its weight behind re-negotiation of the bloc’s migration pact, the Dublin Accords.

However, the scandal has unleashed many secondary ramifications that have yet to fully play out. Amongst them are cross-border legal complaints filed by some of the FPO’s former leaders against the German media agencies that broke the story, serious allegations of spying between EU countries, questions about the link between Austria’s far-right elite and the Kremlin, and the verdict on whether Kurz has done enough convince his Western allies of Austria’s commitment to their intelligence-sharing arrangements.

THE IBIZA AFFAIR

Photo: Michael Lucan / Wikimedia Commons

The now infamous video that triggered the scandal records a secret meeting between then-FPO leader Heinz-Christian Strache and a woman who is supposedly the niece of Russian oligarch Igor Makarov, a few months before the 2017 Austrian election. During the exchange, Strache offers to help his counterpart acquire lucrative public infrastructure tenders awarded to Austrian construction giant Strabag in exchange for her purchase of a 50% stake in Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s most widely-circulated tabloid, and help in transforming it into a channel for FPO propaganda. Other parts of the video document Strache and then-FPO deputy leader Johann Gudenus, speculating on re-creating an Orban-inspired media landscape in Austria and discussing how to sidestep party donation regulations.

The footage’s release prompted Strache’s immediate resignation from both the vice-chancellorship and the FPO party leadership. Shortly after, then-Chancellor Kurz sacked interior minister Herbert Kickl, reasoning that an FPO interior minister could not properly investigate misconduct by his own party. Kurz’s decision prompted the FPO to exit the coalition, leaving the government without a governing majority, and forcing the chancellor to call for snap elections. In a twist, Kurz himself was then removed from office after the FPO backed a no-confidence motion brought by the center-left Social Democrats (SPO). The handover to a caretaker government and Kurz’s replacement as chancellor by Brigitte Bierlein saw two new firsts for Austria — its first-ever successful no-confidence motion and first female chancellor.

THE UPCOMING GENERAL ELECTION

The prevailing outlook in Austria over these past three months shows that Austrians do not appear to blame Kurz or his Austria People’s Party (OVP) for the recent scandals. Not a single poll has predicted that he could fall short of winning this month’s election — on the contrary, polls predict he will win by an even greater margin than the 2017 elections. This is perhaps not surprising as Kurz remains the country’s most popular politician.

The FPO continues to trail the SPO by several points, a dramatic change from 2017 when the two were neck-and-neck. Nevertheless, with roughly 20% support they are still a force to be reckoned with, suggesting the affair has had little effect on voters’ views. Indeed, Strache won so many preferential votes during the recent European Parliament election that he would have become an MEP had he not turned down the opportunity.

Perhaps more surprising is that most voters preferred the OVP-FPO return to coalition government over the more traditional OVP-SPO “grand coalition”. Opposition to a grand coalition is so strong that even voters opposed to an OVP-FPO coalition would rather see Kurz’s party team up with Austria’s smaller liberal parties such as the New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS) and the Green Alternative (GRUNE).

This latter combination seems improbable. It is unlikely that the two parties could supply the numbers to reach a government majority. A relatively new party, NEOS averages around 10 seats every election, while the Greens, which usually take roughly 20 seats, lost every single one at the last election. However, there is speculation of a Green comeback, and with the edge gained by the OVP, it may give such a coalition a slim majority.

Policy differences may present a greater challenge. NEOS is openly critical of both Kurz and the OVP, particularly over social issues such as the environment, immigration, refugees, and the OVP’s stance on Balkan politics. There is also unease within GRUNE about whether entering a coalition with the OVP would benefit or harm the party’s image amongst voters.

Kurz said he would not be opposed to a renewal of the OVP-FPO coalition, but some conciliatory gestures and bending of the party line on certain refugee regulations in the direction of NEOS and GRUNE in recent months indicate that he is keeping his options open.

BEYOND AUSTRIA

Photo: European Parliament / Flickr

The Strache video’s full effect remains to be seen. Strache has filed official legal complaints in Germany against the video’s publishers and, though a probe by authorities into accusations that German intelligence could be behind the leak was shelved last month, several investigations still remain open.

The intelligence community has been rattled by numerous raids conducted by Austria’s interior ministry against the domestic intelligence agency, the BVT. The raids were ordered by erstwhile interior minister Kickl before he was removed from power, raising concerns that documents seized in these raids could be leaked via the FPO to foreign powers — specifically, to the Kremlin.

As Austria shares intelligence with several Western nations, the implications reach far beyond its borders. The UK and the Netherlands have announced restrictions on intelligence sharing with Vienna, while others, including Germany and US, have more quietly confirmed that they are adopting a similar posture. Notably, though Austria remains a member of the Club de Berne — the intelligence-sharing forum of the EU28 plus Switzerland and Norway — it continues to be suspended from the forum’s activities.

Before being ousted, Kurz took several measures to bolster Austria’s image within the intelligence community, including announcing plans to make the BVT report directly to him rather than the interior minister, but these never came to fruition. In the lead up to the coming election, he has adopted a non-negotiable position that the new interior minister must be from his own party regardless of coalition formation. This remains a sticking point amongst the FPO leadership, especially with Kickl who has not been shy about his ambitions to regain the office.

These measures are unlikely to appease Western allies though, as the FPO is not the only party with apparent ties to the Kremlin. Austria has always occupied a unique position between East and West and tailored its policies to maintain a careful balance, but under Kurz it has drifted closer to Moscow both economically and politically. As the election draws closer, NEOS continues to allege that the OVP has sidestepped party finance regulations, raising questions about the source of its funding. Moreover, OVP ministers, both current and former, have served on the board of various Russian state-owned petroleum and telecommunications giants.  Unless Kurz makes a firmer effort to weaken the party’s alignment with Russia, the country will struggle to regain access to the Western intelligence sphere.