With the coalition government disintegrating over the past few days, the “rock star” chancellor finally lost his job in a no-confidence vote on Monday.
The mood was exuberant, the weather sunny and warm and the beers cold. But the demands of the almost 10,000 protesters who had gathered in front of the Chancellery in the Austrian capital on May 18 was clear: “I hope that his government is going to fall,” said 62-year-old Gerda Buchner.
The government did fall nine days later on May 27, as Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was ousted in a no-confidence vote a day after his party made significant gains in the European Parliament elections.
Now Austria will be governed by a body of technical experts until fresh elections are held in early September.
How did it all begin?
The night before May 18, German daily Suddeutsche Zeitung and the weekly Spiegel magazine published excerpts of a video they had obtained showing Heinz-Christian Strache, the head of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPO), and his confidant offering state contracts to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.
Over the course of the secretly filmed meeting on the Spanish island of Ibiza, the three also discussed taking over the independent media, firing journalists, and illegal, off-the-books party financing worth millions of euros.
The level of corruption discussed in the video hit the small Alpine nation like a bomb. For 14 years, Strache had been the figurehead and leader of the far-right FPO, propelling it from the political fringes to such popularity that it secured 26 percent of the votes in the 2017 elections.
The conservative Austrian People’s Party (OVP), which had won the election, brought them on as junior coalition partner, making Strache vice chancellor.
The day after the release of the video, Strache resigned, the consequence of what he called “dumb, and irresponsible” behaviour.
But, amidst the deepest political crisis the modern republic has ever experienced, another message quickly emerged. Given that he had brought the far-right into government in the first place, Kurz – the 32-year-old, political shooting star who had been touted as the future of Europe - should also step down.
The coalition had always been a controversial one. Across Europe, far-right parties have grown increasingly popular, making them viable coalition partners in some of the continent’s strongest democracies. Austria was the first EU country that attempted to allow the far-right to govern since the 2015 migration crisis. The Alpine nation was a Petri dish for others to study how such a partnership might turn out.
For many, it is now a cautionary tale, ending in a political disaster for Kurz. Just a few months ago, the boy wonder had graced the covers of Newsweek and Time, which described him as a “rock star” and “master marketer” who is “managing” the far-right and “remaking Europe’s future from its darkest past”. Now, his face graced the signs of drums and triangle playing protesters. “Basti go home,” one of them read, referring to Kurz by his nickname. “You’re a disgrace for this country,” read another.
At the moment, the big question is not about the future of Strache and the FPO, but about that of the young chancellor.
The past two weeks have been a political whirlwind: Snap elections were called for September. The Freedom Party’s Interior Minister refused to resign, although he would have overseen party financing at the time the video in which illegal donations are discussed was produced, and was consequently dismissed by the country’s president.
The remaining Freedom Party ministers resigned in protest and were quickly replaced by independent experts. Even the politically disenchanted Austrians were discussing the latest news on their way to work, and broadcasters were replacing popular TV shows with live streams of politicians walking in and out of closed-door meetings.
“Kurz is responsible for this chaos,” Pamela Rendi-Wagner, the head of the Social Democratic Party (SPO), the country’s strongest opposition, said at a press conference this week. “Despite warnings and against better judgement, Kurz brought the FPO into the government,” she said.
While the far-right has repeatedly faced outrage over racism and the anti-Semitic statements of its members, the past few months have been particularly scandalous, most notably due to a poem that compared migrants to rodents, and ties to an extremist far-right group which had received donations from the suspected gunman behind the mass mosque shootings in New Zealand in March.
“Kurz has risked the stability of this country, and now we see the results,” Rendi-Wagner said.
While she did not clearly state how her party would vote on the non-confidence motion held on Monday, she repeatedly said that she sees a government entirely made up of independent experts – including the chancellor – as the only viable option until snap elections are held.
Leaving a meeting in which Kurz had sought their support on Saturday, top SPO politicians seemed unimpressed with the chancellor. “My personal opinion is to have a government made up of experts, and that the vote of non-confidence will pass on Monday,” Hans Peter Doskozil, Governor of the eastern province of Burgenland, said.
Former coalition partner FPO has chimed in, blaming Kurz for the failure of their government as opposed to the scheming of their longtime leader. At a rally with their frontrunner for the EU parliamentary elections, FPO supporters chanted “Kurz has to go” in unison.
“Sheer desire for revenge,” Kurz said in a televised interview on the public broadcaster when asked to comment on the no-confidence vote that eventually ended his chancellorship. The goal of the FPO and the SPO, he said, was to get rid of him. “They have the opportunity to do so in parliament. If that’s what parliament decides, then naturally – as a convinced democrat – I will take cognizance of it.