The end of the right-wing coalition, a successful vote of no-confidence and the nomination of a technical government with gender parity: How one 6-minute video has turned Austria upside down.
The past three weeks turned out to be unusually tumultuous in Austrian politics, and that was not the fault of the European elections. Although campaigning for the seats in the European Parliament was intense, no one could anticipate the political earthquake which would unravel on Friday 17 May and which put the Austrian constitution of 1920 to its greatest test yet.
A secretly filmed video of Austria’s Vice-Chancellor and leader of the right-wing FPOE Heinz Christian Strache – discussing illegal donations to his party in a villa on Ibiza – literally changed the country’s politics from one day to another. On 18 May, Strache apologised and resigned while Chancellor Sebastian Kurz dissolved the coalition and called for fresh elections in September, after mere 525 days in office.
Yet Kurz was unable to garner support from the opposition in order to remain in office until the elections and was ousted in a vote of no confidence by the Parliament – a novelty in Austria’s history, but only one of several. These three weeks have indeed seen so many historical firsts, it is difficult to name them all.
Following the vote of no confidence, Sebastian Kurz earned the title of shortest Kanzlerschaft (chancellorship) in the Second Republic. Due to possible involvement in the illegal financing of the FPOE, Herbert Kickl became the first minister to be suspended from office by the President, who in turn nominated the first ever provisional government led by the first female Chancellor in Austrian history, Brigitte Bierlein. Lastly, that government consists of men and women to equal parts, another novelty for the country.
Wake me up when September ends
Yet, there are also grander developments which have received less attention following the change in government. The Greens, which had been kicked out of parliament in the last general elections in 2017, achieved a remarkable result in the European elections and were able to benefit from the salience of climate change as well as the weakness of the socialists, similar to the German Green party.
Until the fresh elections, Austria has politically exciting times ahead. Can the Greens sustain the high level of support until September? Will the socialist SPOE be able to recover and challenge Kurz’ conservative OEVP? And crucially, will the Ibiza scandal still influence the political discourse until then?
Much to the chagrin of the population, Austrians face four months of intense and possibly dirty campaigning. For left-wing commentators and opponents to Kurz’ right-wing government, it is a price worth paying. The possibility of a second Kurz government at the end of the process might however crush their hope that Ibiza has permanently damaged FPOE and OEVP.
In fact, and to the surprise of many, the FPOE only lost around 2% in the European elections – just one week after Ibiza. Not only did their “now more than ever” campaign finish prove successful, but Strache’s successor Norbert Hofer has demonstrated before that he is capable of mobilizing voters. Strache might be gone – though not even that is for sure – but his party and its ideology are alive and kicking.
No doubt Austrian politics has reached a turning point. September will show whether it manages to turn for good.