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The “Greta-Effect” and Embezzlement

How Climate Change And Corruption Have Shaped Austria’s Snap-election Results

A Protester holding up a sign at the protest the day after the Ibiza video surfaced./ On Wikimedia Commons by Haeferl

After Austria’s snap-election late last month, all eyes are on former and future Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to form a new government. His former coalition partner far-right FPÖ has lost significantly after several scandals, including attempted corruption and embezzlement of party funds. 

The “Greta-Effect” seems to have worked in favour of the Greens, who have gathered enough mandates to re-enter parliament after their devastating loss two years ago, and are now a potential partner for a coalition government led by Kurz’ conservative ÖVP. The Social Democrats SPÖ seem to be heading towards another legislative period as part of the opposition.

It was a warm Saturday on May 18 when an unusually high number of Austrians were watching the midday news. Vice-Chancellor and leader of the co-governing far-right party FPÖ (Freedom Party), Heinz-Christian Strache, was set to address the public and press in a press conference, supposedly announcing his resignation. This came after a video surfaced the night before that showed him in the pre-election summer of 2017, lounging on a sofa in a villa on Ibiza, highly inebriated. He was talking to a young blonde woman who he took to be a Russian investor, later revealed to be an actress, merely posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch, about selling out infrastructure and business contracts. There were even plans to create a charity foundation to mask illegal party donations. On top of that, Strache proposed to her a take over of Austria’s most widely read daily, Kronen Zeitung, in order to gain significant influence over information spread in the run-up to the election later that year.

Strache giving a speech / On Flickr by Franz Johan Morgenbesser 

The events following Strache’s resignation would eventually lead to a dissolution of the government, announcement of re-elections, and the appointment of Austria’s first ever government of appointed civil servants. It was entirely made up of non-politicians, led by the country’s first ever female head of government, former High Court judge Brigitte Bierlein. Chancellor Kurz’ effort of bringing the far-right FPÖ back into government after 10 years had failed. Surprisingly, it was not due to party members and functionaires repeated re-engagement with Neo-Nazi ideology but their downright betrayal of the voters. Strache himself as well as many high ranking ministers and members of parliament had been part of Burschenschaften, right-wing fraternities, of which some still glorify the unification of Austria with Germany.

Nevertheless, it would take another scandal for the voters to finally turn away from the FPÖ, as they still came out as the third strongest party in the EU elections a week after the Ibiza video surfaced. This time, just days away from the National Election, it had been made public that Strache had embezzled large sums of party funds for private purposes. Tuesday, just two days after a horrendous election result for the FPÖ, with a loss of 10% compared to 2017, Strache announced in yet another press conference that he would now totally withdraw from politics and give up his party membership once and for all. Investigations are still ongoing, but those formerly closest to him (i.e. former Minister of the Interior Herbert Kickl, and new FPÖ leader Norbert Hofer) have cut ties with Strache. 

School strike for climate in Vienna / On Wikimedia Commons by Jean-Frédéric

So what happens now? Coalition talks are ongoing, and it looks like former Chancellor Kurz will take up the role as leader of the government again, but who will be his Vice? Things are looking good for leader of the Greens, Werner Kogler, but there will have to be a lot of compromise to bridge the gap between Kurz’ economy focused ÖVP and Kogler’s climate conscious policies. Besides that, the neo-liberal, business focused NEOS might be a contender to complete a three-party coalition government, and polls show that voters would be in favour of a three-party coalition.

The Austrian Greens have capitalized on the “Greta-Effect” that also helped climate conscious parties elsewhere in Europe gain considerable support. After having lost all mandates in 2017, the Greens are the first party to ever re-enter parliament. Werner Kogler had been very active in Austria’s participation in “Fridays for Future”, with the biggest demonstration happening just two days prior to election day. With Kogler as Vice-Chancellor, Austria would set a great example that a turn towards more sustainable politics is possible.

What is unlikely is for Kurz to turn to the Social Democrats, SPÖ, who, albeit their disdain for the opposition role, will most likely find themselves in that position again, having lost many of their voters to the Greens as they failed to present convincing climate policies during their campaign. Same goes for the far-right FPÖ, who will probably use this legislation period to establish themselves as strong opposition party again, just like they did after their government stint in the early 2000s. At this point in time, however, it is difficult to make concrete predictions, as the coalition talks are still ongoing and are not said to be concluded before the turn of the year.

* Disclaimer: this article was written in October. Kurz and Kogler have now expressed interest in coalition talks,  and a set coalition is expected before Christmas.

Roja Moser

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