Austria faces political scandals and voter apathy

VIENNA—In recent years, Austrian politics has been plagued by a constant stream of scandals. From backroom deals at a luxury villa in Ibiza, Spain, to rigged opinion polls funded with taxpayer money, and changes in laws to please wealthy donors, the alpine country has seen more than its share of political drama, and the resulting investigations have exposed widespread corruption around the world. Politics, business and media of Austria.

Last week, a close aide and confidant of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was ousted from the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP) for his role in a series of corruption scandals during Kurz’s tenure. And the week before, the top editors of two of the country’s leading media outlets were forced to resign when chats surfaced showing their overly comfortable relationships with politicians.

Austria is far from the only country where frequent scandals and allegations of corruption have become the norm. In the United States, despite his role in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol and inflammatory rhetoric about voter fraud in 2020, former President Donald Trump has launched a 2024 re-election bid. , and has inspired a list of choices. -denialist candidates within the Republican Party, some of whom just won elections this month. And the UK is in its third prime minister this year after Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss resigned over various scandals.

VIENNA—In recent years, Austrian politics has been plagued by a constant stream of scandals. Of secret deals in a luxury villa in Ibiza, Spain, to rigged opinion polls funded with taxpayer money to the laws changed To please wealthy donors, the Alpine country has seen more than its share of political drama, and the resulting investigations have exposed widespread corruption in Austria’s politics, business and media.

Last week, a close associate and confidant of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was Expelled of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP) for his role in a series of corruption scandals during Kurz’s tenure. And the week before that, the top editors of two of the country’s leading media outlets were forced to resign when chats arose that showed his too cozy relationships with politicians.

Austria is far from the only country where frequent scandals and allegations of corruption have become the norm. In the United States, despite his role in the January 6, 2021 attack on the US Capitol and inflammatory rhetoric about voter fraud in 2020, former President Donald Trump has launched a 2024 re-election bid. , and has inspired a list of choices. -denialist candidates within the Republican Party, some of whom just won elections this month. And the UK is in its third prime minister this year after Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss resigned over various scandals.

But Austria demonstrates more clearly than most the insidious effect these scandals can have on the state of democracy, even if those responsible for corruption and scandals face the consequences: Over time, voters become desensitized to the latest accusations and view the whole system with a mixture of suspicion and resignation.

“Of course, there’s a lot of disillusionment within the population, but also an attitude of ‘Well, yeah, we’ve always known that to be the case. It’s not new,’” said Peter Hajek, a Vienna-based pollster. “There is a certain sense of calm about it: on the one hand, you are angry, but on the other hand, [you’re] a little disappointed and frustrated that that’s the way things are.”

In 2019, the called “ibiza affair made international headlines and changed the country’s politics after German media released video footage of Heinz-Christian Strache, then head of the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) and future vice-chancellor, making deals with a woman he thought to be the niece of a Russian oligarch at a luxury villa in Ibiza in 2017. The fallout from the scandal toppled Austria’s ruling coalition and launched a series of investigations into a number of top politicians and advisers .

The resulting investigation since then, in a steady trickle of revelations from prosecutors, has exposed shady dealings throughout the Austrian political system and has had consequences for those involved. Strache was convicted of corruption last year and is on trial on separate corruption charges this year. Last October, Kurz, whose meteoric rise to chancellor at 31 made him the envy of conservative parties across Europe, was forced to resign due to allegations that he had used taxpayer funds to commission rigged polls and boost his own image.

This fall, the case took a dramatic turn when Thomas Schmid, a former close colleague of Kurz’s, agreed to testify against the former chancellor. His testimony, in which he spoke explicitly about the ways in which Kurz directed him and others then working in the Finance Ministry to embezzle government funds, could lead to charges against Kurz. (Kurz has denied all the allegations.)

Not long after the Schmid revelations, recently published chats between top Austrian media editors and top politicians showed the extent to which some in the media collaborated with and sympathized with politicians in government (including Schmid himself). An editor at the Austrian public broadcaster ORF sent Strache a text message to complain together about the left-leaning tendencies of the network. And the editor of the newspaper. die press, Rainer Nowak, sent Schmid a text congratulating him on a promotion, saying that Schmid should use his new position to help Nowak land a coveted job at ORF: “Now you have to help me with ORF,” he wrote, and Schmid replied : “Absolutely”.

On the one hand, extensive research and its consequences in different sectors of politics and society show that democracy still works in Austria: those who have done something wrong are losing their jobs and facing the consequences. So much corruption exposed makes it difficult for those in power to avoid making changes in the future.

“Any bits of plausible deniability are just gone,” said Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik, a political scientist at the University of Vienna. “To me, this is quite healthy: we now have undeniable proof that these things are happening, so it’s inevitable that we do something about it.”

But on the other hand, the prolonged trickle of scandals, big and small, has reinforced the long-held belief among the electorate that people in power inevitably do shady things. In the long run, this can further erode trust not only in the politicians themselves but also in the institutions they represent: if all politicians are corrupt, what does it matter who is in charge or who you vote for?

“What many of the scandals do is reveal the rottenness of many parts of Austrian politics, media and business,” Ennser-Jedenastik said, likening the situation to a loose thread that, once pulled, continues to unravel. “We have had a steady stream of corruption scandals for decades, whether it be trust [in government] it was already pretty low, so it’s not going down much, or not registering as much” these days.

Shortly after Kurz’s departure in 2021, his OVP fell in the polls: After peaking at 44 percent in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, he is now voting in third place behind the center-left Social Democrats and the far-right FPO. But the latest cascade of revelations is doing little to move the electoral needle: Polls have been relatively flat in recent months.

Short of a live bomb, Hajek said the new allegations are unlikely to have much of an impact on cross-party support.

“It’s a classic Austrian attitude,” he said. “There will be no revolutions, just accept it.”

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