The Perfect Enemy | Austria Faces Political Scandals, Voter Apathy
December 5, 2022

Austria Faces Political Scandals, Voter Apathy

Austria Faces Political Scandals, Voter Apathy  Foreign Policy

Read Time:6 Minute

VIENNA—In recent years, Austrian politics have been plagued by a steady stream of scandals. From secret deals at a luxury villa in Ibiza, Spain, to doctored opinion polls funded by taxpayer money to 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 across Austrian politics, business, and media. 

Just last week, a close aide and confidant to former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was booted out of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP) over his role in a series of corruption scandals during Kurz’s tenure. And the week before that, top editors at two of the country’s major media outlets were forced to resign when chats surfaced showing their 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 Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and inflammatory rhetoric about election fraud in 2020, former President Donald Trump has launched a bid for reelection in 2024—and has inspired a slate of election-denier candidates within the Republican Party, some of whom just won election this month. And the United Kingdom is on its third prime minister this year after Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss stepped down due to various scandals.

VIENNA—In recent years, Austrian politics have been plagued by a steady stream of scandals. From secret deals at a luxury villa in Ibiza, Spain, to doctored opinion polls funded by taxpayer money to 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 across Austrian politics, business, and media. 

Just last week, a close aide and confidant to former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was booted out of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP) over his role in a series of corruption scandals during Kurz’s tenure. And the week before that, top editors at two of the country’s major media outlets were forced to resign when chats surfaced showing their 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 Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and inflammatory rhetoric about election fraud in 2020, former President Donald Trump has launched a bid for reelection in 2024—and has inspired a slate of election-denier candidates within the Republican Party, some of whom just won election this month. And the United Kingdom is on its third prime minister this year after Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss stepped down due to 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 the corruption and scandals face consequences: Over time, voters become desensitized to the latest allegations and view the entire system with a mix of suspicion and resignation. 

“Of course, there’s a great disillusionment within the population but also an attitude of, ‘Well, yeah, we’ve always known it’s like this. It’s not new,’” said Peter Hajek, a Vienna-based pollster. “There’s a certain sense of calmness about it: On the one hand, you’re angry, but on the other hand, [you’re] a bit disillusioned and frustrated because that’s just the way it is.”

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

The resulting probe since then has, in a steady trickle of revelations from prosecutors, exposed shady dealings across the Austrian political system—and had consequences for those involved. Strache was convicted of corruption last year and is on trial for separate corruption charges this year. Last October, Kurz, whose meteoric rise to chancellor at age 31 made him the envy of conservative parties across Europe, was forced to resign due to allegations that he’d used taxpayer funds to commission doctored polls and bolster 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 Kurz directed him and others then working in the finance ministry to misuse government funds, could lead to charges against Kurz. (Kurz has denied all allegations.)

Not long after Schmid’s revelations, newly released chats between top editors in Austrian media 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 texted with Strache to complain together about the left-leaning tendencies of the network. And the editor of the newspaper Die Presse, Rainer Nowak, texted Schmid congratulating him on a promotion, saying Schmid should use his new position to help Nowak get a coveted gig at ORF: “Now you have to help me with ORF,” he wrote, and Schmid replied, “Absolutely.”

On the one hand, the wide-ranging investigation and its fallout across 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 consequences. So much exposed corruption makes it hard for those in power to avoid making changes in the future.

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

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

“What many of the scandals do is to reveal the rottenness of many parts of Austrian politics, media, and business,” Ennser-Jedenastik said, likening the situation to a loose string that, once pulled, keeps unraveling. “We’ve had a steady stream of corruption scandals for decades now—either trust [in government] was already quite low, so it’s not going down that much further, or it’s not registering as much” these days.

Shortly after Kurz’s departure in 2021, his OVP did slip in the polls: After peaking at 44 percent in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is now polling 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 stable in recent months.

Barring a real bombshell, Hajek said new allegations are unlikely to have a big impact on the different parties’ support. 

“It’s a classic Austrian attitude,” he said. “There will be no revolutions—you just come to terms with it.”