In an interview with EURACTIV, European law expert Stefan Brocza explains why the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) could still achieve good results in Sunday’s European elections, despite the unfolding scandal linking the party with a supposed Russian oligarch.
Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPÖ leader and vice-chancellor of Austria, was forced to resign over the scandal, which exposed him in a video shot in Ibiza in 2017, before he entered the Austrian government.
All FPÖ ministers subsequently resigned as well, prompting the president to call for early elections to be held in September.
In the video, Strache is filmed proposing public contracts to the supposed niece of a Russian oligarch, although she repeatedly made clear that “dirty money” was involved.
Strache also openly discussed restructuring the Austrian media landscape in line with the Hungarian model, by suggesting a buy-out of Austria’s influential newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung.
Brocza describes Strache’s understanding of the media as “Orbán plus”, and says the scandal was more one of disenchantment for Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s conservative chancellor who invited the FPÖ in his government coalition.
Stefan Brocza is an Austrian European law expert, who currently teaches, does research and offers political advice. He spoke to EURACTIV.de’s Alicia Prager.
EURACTIV: The video scandal has triggered quite a stir in Austrian politics. How do you see the events unfold from now on?
Brocza: The FPÖ once again proved that it is incapable of governing. What you see in the video, does not surprise me. It is commonly known that these people are like that. But it’s a strong moral image that is suddenly so apparent to everyone.
Chancellor Kurz has thus lost his main option to form a government. On Saturday he declared that siding with FPÖ would no longer be an option. The same goes for the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ), as they are not supporting any reforms.
He is running out of options. He stands in the corner and will be needing a coalition partner of some kind.
Which option do you think is realistic?
I guess he hopes to form a coalition with the New Austria and Liberal Forum (NEOS). Some NEOS members are people from the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) who jumped ship, and yesterday, Meindl-Reisinger [ed.: party leader of the NEOS] “from the centre” did not rule this out.
I think he will gamble and try to form a government with a small party. Similar to Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer [ed. party leader of the Christian Democrats (CDU)] in Germany, who also seems to have plans to govern with liberals and the Greens.
EU elections are just around the corner, and Austria will be voting next Sunday. Can you already foresee how the video will affect the elections?
Vilimsky (FPÖ) is not doing badly in various discussions with top candidates. I do not agree with the opinion of others, who believe that Sunday’s vote will be a test vote for parliamentary elections in Austria.
European elections have their own laws and depend heavily on how many people vote. We traditionally have a very low turnout. The big question will be: Will disappointed FPÖ voters go to the polls? Then there will simply be fewer people in the quorum, with mandates wandering back and forth.
The counterargument: The FPÖ is and remains the only anti-EU party. All others are pro-Europeans. I would not underestimate this. It is estimated that 15% of the electorate is among the FPÖ’s core voters, a number intended to then increase by an additional 10 to 12%. If the party goes to the polls with 15% of core voters and the turnout only amounts to 50%, then the FPÖ is likely to reach around 25-30%.
Therefore I am not sure whether the election will be such a big disappointment for the FPÖ. Also, only 18 seats are awarded, meaning that one party will need 6% per seat. Even if percentages shift slightly, there won’t be a drastic change.
So far, the FPÖ has had four seats in the European Parliament. Before the video was leaked, polls indicated that they would win a fifth. But after this weekend, they might not receive the fifth seat but remain at the same level. I, therefore, do not believe that the scandal will have a direct effect on the European elections.
So far, the FPÖ has proved to be quite immune to crises, voters have never really been deterred by scandals. Could this also be the case this time, or does this situation exceed previous revelations?
I am not so sure. In this morning’s press conference with Interior Minister Kickl (FPÖ), he presented the story in a slightly different way. He spoke about the power-obsessed, gambling Federal Chancellor, who is only interested in his career.
So far it has been like this in Austria: The FPÖ behaved wrongly and got punished in the next elections. Then, voters forgot everything and re-elected the FPÖ in the election after that. And this is more the case than ever before.
The situation will not change the fact that 25 to 30 per cent of Austrians oppose globalisation, the EU and do not see foreigners in a very positive light. The FPÖ is the only party that really speaks to these issues.
In other words, they will probably not win the elections in the short term. But I do not think that this will really change anything in the medium term. The whole atmosphere here is like this and experience shows that people still keep voting for the FPÖ.
The video was recorded in 2017. Why has the video only appeared now? Who do you think is behind the video?
Everything suggests that it was not made in view of the national parliamentary election that took place at the time. Maybe someone recorded him at the time as a way to discipline him at a later date in case he didn’t deliver.
It certainly wasn’t Tal Silberstein [ed.: political adviser Tal Silberstein worked on a distinctive smear campaign in 2017 as a campaign advisor to the SPÖ]. Had he been behind the video, he would have already made it public.
I’ve heard rumours that someone in Russia is behind the video and that it was said that if he does not behave, the video will be given to the media.
But it is true. It is bizarre for the video to be shot and to have stayed in the ‘poison cupboard’ for so long. It appears that the person who made it had something else in mind – something more long-term. So it seems obvious, that they are being disciplined.
In the video, there is open speculation about restructuring the media based on the Hungarian model. Since 2017, we have seen quite drastic developments in Austria’s media sector. What does the emergence of the video tell us about the media landscape in Austria?
In Austria, it is politically understood that with the Kronen Zeitung on one’s side, the elections are easily won. The video is an extreme moral image that shows an insane understanding of the media: I take over one, knock out the other and put my own people in it. That is “Orbán plus”.
The irritating thing is that the newspaper mentioned in the scandal has undergone some changes and René Benko, whom he mentioned, got in there.
In any case, I believe that the media will continue to be under pressure. That is a global trend. Now we Austrians are once again paying lip service to the importance of the fourth estate. But this will change just as quickly.
What happens next in Austria?
Now the question arises: will the ministers leave or will they stay? There are a few important decisions to be made regarding those who take on these positions.
For example, I do not see why FPÖ ministers in the Council of Ministers would now agree to the nomination of Mrs Edtstadler as EU Commissioner, but the Austrian government needs to make a decision on this.
In July, we should say who we would like to have as a European Commissioner, and this person would then face a hearing before the European Parliament.
I do not yet see how the government can continue working on making progress on its various legislative proposals: the tax reform, the new unemployment benefit, the transparency database.
Sebastian Kurz waited the whole day on Saturday because he hoped to take over a ministry from the FPÖ and then continue. But this is not about Austria, he simply wanted to have the Ministry of the Interior for the ÖVP. But now he is running out of options and everyone who will govern with him in the future knows what lies ahead of him.
He has thoroughly gambled himself away. It is more a case of disenchantment for Sebastian Kurz.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]