Austria’s Political Mess


(Credit: swissmacky on shutterstock swissmacky/

Paul Siebert


Is Austria a banana republic? In the past 2 ½ years, Austrian politics have gone through several scandals that cast doubts on their seriousness. On the 6th of December 2021, Austria swore in its second new chancellor within two months. How and why Austrian politics have gone downhill in the last few years and whether they are going to change for the better now will be this article’s topics. 

Sebastian Kurz’s entry into politics

It all began in 2011 when Sebastian Kurz entered politics. Kurz is a 24-year-old university dropout with a style and dynamism that instantly appealed to a demographic well outside his center-right party’s traditional base. He was appointed state secretary and put in charge of socially integrating refugees. In 2013, at age 26, he was appointed Austria’s youngest ever foreign minister and he stayed in that position until, in 2017, when Kurz was appointed as the Austrian People’s Party’s (ÖVP) chairman. That enabled him to run for chancellor. The following election ended in a landslide victory for him. According to observers, the main reasons for his success were his reformist approach, especially concerning the European refugee crisis (he was extremely conservative and his goal was to convince the EU to close its borders to refugees), and his rhetorical skills. 

The Ibiza-affair

Kurz and his party formed a coalition with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). For the first year or two, Kurz was credited with mostly following through on his campaign pledges, but his leadership style was often described as uncooperative and hasty. But then, in May 2019, two German media outlets released a video of two Austrian politicians offering a woman, purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, lucrative public contracts in exchange for campaign support. The video was taped during a private meeting in a villa on the Mediterranean party island Ibiza. The two Austrian politicians involved in the “Ibiza-affair” were Heinz-Christian Strache who, was the leader of the FPÖ and Kurz’s vice chancellor, and his party member Johann Gudenus, who was a member of the Austrian parliament. Strache and Gudenus both resigned, calling their actions “stupid, irresponsible, and a mistake.” But, Strache also added that the whole thing was “a honey trap stage-managed by intelligence agencies.” Who exactly planned the sting and released the video to the German media outlets, has not yet been revealed. Right after the release of the video, a no-confidence vote was set up, and Sebastian Kurz was voted out of office. However, he was voted back in only a few months later in the following snap elections. The public seemed to have come to the conclusion that he was not involved in the wrongdoings of Strache and Gudenus.

A fresh start?

For his new chancellorship, Kurz and his party decided to form a coalition with the Greens instead of the FPÖ. The Ibiza affair hadn’t been concluded with the resignations of Strache and Gudenus. A parliamentary subcommittee was still investigating possible false statements by Kurz and his chief of staff, Gerhard Bonelli. In one of the statements the committee was investigating, Kurz, under oath to parliament and in front of the Ibiza commission of inquiry, denied being involved in the appointment of Thomas Schmid as chief executive of ÖBAG, a state-run holding that oversees 11 government owned companies. However, the commission found text messages on his phone that suggest otherwise. In one of them, Kurz messaged Schmid that he could get anything he wanted. 

While Kurz was still under investigation on suspicion of perjury, anti-corruption prosecutors raided the chancellery, the finance ministry, and several of his parties’ offices. The Prosecutors’ Office for Economic Affairs and Corruption officially stated that it had placed Sebastian Kurz, nine others, and three organizations under investigation on suspicion of breach of trust, corruption, and bribery (all partly with different levels of involvement). The suspicion in this investigation was that the Finance ministry, which was led by members of Kurz’s party, paid for manipulated polls in the newspaper Österreich. According to the prosecutors, the payments started in 2016 when Kurz was still foreign minister but was looking to replace Reinhold Mitterlehner as the ÖVP’s chairman and then, possibly, become chancellor. Even though Kurz continuously stated that “these accusations, too, will prove to be false,” he finally had to give up his fight to stay in office after the Greens threatened to pull the plug on the coalition if Kurz didn’t resign. So, on the 9th of October, he announced that foreign minister Alexander Schallenberg would be his successor. He still continued to work as the ÖVP’s chairman and was called the “shadow chancellor” by many. Kurz seemed to continue his work by simply going through Schallenberg for the next two months. Meanwhile, a judge continued to question Kurz about the appointment of Thomas Schmid. Overall, he seemed to be happy with himself “governing from the shadows.” 

The final resignation

This was until he announced that he would quit politics completely on the 2nd of December, 2021. According to him, the birth of his son a month earlier had triggered this decision. He said he wanted to spend more time with his son and that he hoped he made his contribution “to move our beautiful Austria a little bit in the right direction.” Austrian media also reported on a memo found on the phone of a former ÖVP minister that appeared to undermine Kurz’s defense in his perjury case. That might have factored into his decision to step down as well. Kurz also didn’t rule out the possibility that he might return to politics at some point. For now, he just announced that he will move to the Silicon Valley and work in the private sector. There, he will work for the investment company Thiel capital whose owner is Peter Thiel, a German-American billionaire and former advisor of Donald Trump. Media outlets have speculated that Kurz will definitely not end up impoverished after this.

Schallenberg resigned as chancellor within hours of Kurz’s resignation as party leader. He called taking the reins from Kurz in October an act of duty, but now, he wanted to make way for the new leader of the People’s Party (in Austria, the chancellor traditionally has always been the head of the biggest party). Schallenberg’s tenure as chancellor was the shortest in Austrian history. He now holds his previous appointment as foreign minister. 

The new chancellor

Austria’s new chancellor is Karl Nehammer, the former interior minister and an army veteran. He is the third chancellor since October of last year alone and the 6th in the last 5 years. If Austrian politics calm down from now on, he will remain in that position until the next regular election in 2024. On the other hand, it isn’t even certain if the fragile coalition of Greens and the ÖVP will last that long. So, asking ourselves again if Austria is a banana republic, we would probably have to say no. But it has come dangerously close to being one in the last few years. Nehammer will have to do his best to restore the population’s trust in the government. Mr. Van der Bellen, Austria’s president, spoke about the need to regain the public’s trust in politics during Nehammer’s swearing-in ceremony. He said, “What is always needed is to come clean to the population,” and “make fact-based decisions.”

Whether Nehammer will be able to regain the public’s trust in politics and complete his job without being accused of corruption and false statements, we don’t know. Throughout all of the political chaos, however, Austria definitely deserves a period of peace and quiet.