Austria’s chancellor has been ousted in a no-confidence vote just a day after his centre-right party enjoyed a triumphant night in the European elections, as opposition politicians said they had lost faith in his handling of a corruption scandal that has engulfed his former far-right coalition partner.
With fresh elections scheduled for early September, Austria will in the interim period be governed by a technocratic government of experts and senior civil servants.
During a debate in which the delegates of the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) resolutely refused to lend Sebastian Kurz the customary applause, rightwing populist politicians accused the centre-right chancellor of having tried to use the so-called “Ibiza” scandal to consolidate his power at the top of government.
Opposition delegates said that Kurz, leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), had not shown enough willingness to enter into a dialogue with parliament during his time as chancellor: “You only showed contempt for parliament and Austrian democracy”, said Jörg Leichtfried, an SPÖ deputy.
The vote makes Austria’s youthful chancellor the final figure to be swept away by a political avalanche unleashed in the Alpine state by the so-called “Ibiza scandal”.
A week ago, German publications Der Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung published a video on their websites that shows Heinz-Christian Strache, the FPÖ leader, and his parliamentary leader, Johann Gudenus, talking to an unidentified woman purporting to be the niece of a Russian oligarch about how she could invest in Austria.
During the six-hour meeting at a luxury resort on Ibiza, the woman expresses an interest in gaining control of the country’s largest-circulation tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung, to which Strache replies that after staff changes at the paper, it could help the Freedom party in its election campaign. A chain-smoking Strache is then filmed saying the woman would be able to gain access to artificially-inflated state contracts.
Strache resigned a day after the video’s publication, describing his behaviour as “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake”. Interior minister Herbert Kickl was sacked the following Monday, with Kurz accusing the FPÖ hardliner of failing to show the “required sensibility in dealing with the accusations”.
Who exactly organised the sting on the far-right remains the subject of fevered speculation in both Austria and Germany. Media reports have identified Viennese lawyer Ramin Mirfakhrai as the middleman who put the Freedom party politicians in touch with the purported heiress.
In a written statement, Mirfakhrai confirmed his involvement but didn’t reveal any further participants, merely describing the sting as a “civil society-driven project in which investigative-journalistic approaches were taken”.
Spiegel and Süddeutsche have refused to comment on the video’s origins in order to protect their sources. Strache has called the video “a honey trap stage-managed by intelligence agencies”, but also alluded to a controversial Israeli spin doctor with links to Austria’s centre-left Social Democratic party (SPÖ) and a German satirist, Jan Böhmermann.
What is clear is that Strache may have realised he was being set up if his judgement hadn’t been clouded by copious shots of vodka and Red Bull.
The video shows Strache growing suspicious when he notices the purported Russian heiress’s grubby toenails. “A Russian woman in this league doesn’t have dirty feet,” Strache is heard whispering to Gudenus. But his protégé dismisses the concerns, more alcohol is poured, and the conversation continues.
Austrian tabloid Krone on Monday identified the woman at the centre of the video as a Bosnian student of agricultural science, and claimed that she received a payment of between €6,000 and €7,000 for her “performance”.
Gudenus, who has been expelled from the FPÖ in the wake of the scandal, has since said he believes his drinks were spiked because he cannot remember much of the evening.
For all the drama and cloak-and-dagger intrigue of the last week, Sunday evening’s European elections made it look as if the tremors of the Ibiza scandal had done less damage to Austria’s political landscape than many had expected.
Kurz’s conservatives emerged as the strongest party on the night on 34.5% of the vote, up by 7.5% on the previous elections. The FPÖ’s vote only took a minor hit, losing 2.2 percentage points and coming third with 17.5%.
In fact, Strache received enough preferential votes across the country that he could be headed to the European parliament if he were to accept the mandate.
The SPÖ came second on 23.5% but performed slightly less well than in 2014.
For now, the vote of no-confidence means that 32-year-old Kurz could go down in Austria’s history books not just as its youngest ever chancellor, but also the one who lasted the shortest time in office.
Only 525 days have passed since Kurz was sworn into office on the back of a resounding win in the 2017 national elections. His predecessor, Social Democrat Christian Kern, had lasted 580 days.
In view of Sunday’s triumphant result for the ÖVP, Kurz can still be hopeful of yet adding more days in government to his tally.