Austria crisis: Will the right-wing and the socialists take down Sebastian Kurz?
A corruption scandal has Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s grip on power slipping by the day. With a no-confidence motion likely, can Austria’s right and left wings team up to boot the 32-year-old leader from office?
In a matter of days, Kurz has accepted the resignation of former coalition partner head Heinz-Christian Strache, and sacked Interior Minister Herbert Kickl. In the wake of Kickl’s dismissal, members of his Freedom Party (FPO) vacated their seats in Kurz’s cabinet, and Federal President Alexander Van Der Bellen filled these posts on Wednesday with a mix of Austrian People’s Party (OVP) and Social Democrats (SPO) officials and neutral technocrats.
The scandal erupted on Friday when German media published a video showing Strache negotiating a quid-pro-quo deal with the supposed niece of a Russian oligarch in Ibiza in 2017.
Strache called the video a “targeted political assassination,” but resigned a day later regardless. Kurz claimed Kickl’s sacking was necessary because as interior minister and FPO member, Kickl was not in a position to investigate his own party leader impartially.
A snap election is expected in September, but Kurz will first have to survive a motion of no confidence, likely in parliament on Monday. Neither the FPO nor the SPO has enough seats in parliament to carry such a motion on their own, and speculation has mounted over whether the SPO will enter into a Faustian pact with the FPO to boot Kurz from office.
“For the Social Democrats, this is a dilemma,” Gerhard Mangott, a political science professor at Innsbruck University told RT. “On the one hand hey would love to pass a motion of no confidence in Chancellor Kurz, because relations between the SPO and the Austrian People’s Party (OVP) have been very bad.”
The Social Democrats have bitterly opposed the Kurz government since the 32-year-old chancellor took office in 2017, regularly sniping at the OVP/FPO coalition’s hardline immigration policies. “If it does not vote for a no-confidence motion this time it will not be seen as credible,” Dr. Heinz Gaertner, a political science professor at the University of Vienna, told RT.
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Both sides have their own selfish reasons to remove Kurz from office too. For the FPO, simple revenge is a possibility. Kickl hinted at this after his dismissal, telling news website Oe24 that “It would be almost naive for Kurz to assume that we, the FPO, have no distrust of him following his distrust in us,” and adding that if a vote were to be held: “those who give distrust get distrust.”
Voting against the center-right chancellor may also please the SPO’s left-wing voter base, Mangott said, but with an election coming, the party will need to “appeal to the broader public who don’t want more instability.”
A blessing in disguise
If Kurz were to survive a no-confidence vote, the chancellor could emerge from the current turmoil strengthened. In 2000, then-OVP leader Wolfgang Schussel became chancellor despite coming in third place in Austria’s 1999 elections. Schussel entered into a coalition with the FPO, who had won more votes. After a schism within the FPO led to the resignation of several key ministers in 2002, snap elections were called and Schussel’s OVP won 40 percent of the vote before re-entering a coalition with a dramatically weakened Freedom Party.
“For Freedom Party voters who no longer want to vote for the party, the Social Democrats are not a real alternative,” Mangott told RT. “They will turn their backs on the Freedom Party and vote for the other right-wing, anti-immigrant party.”
“The scenario of 2002,” Gaertner added, “is what Kurz is hoping for.”
Before the Austrian electorate goes to the polls, Kurz will first have to weather the likely vote on Monday. Federal President Alexander Van Der Bellen said on Tuesday that he “expects” Kurz to remain in power until September. Mangott views this as a message to parliament: “Don’t pass a no-confidence vote, because this will bring more instability.”
On a local level, the Social Democrats are already taking advantage of the breaking of the coalition. The SPO governor of the eastern Burgenland province, Hans Peter Doskozil, officially severed ties with the Freedom Party on Sunday and called fresh elections. Cooperation with the right-wing FPO had been a sore spot for Doskozil, and the latest scandal gave the socialist governor the chance to clean house.
“These provincial governments have local reasons as well to get rid of the Freedom Party and have seized the opportunity,” Gaertner said.
“It’s all open,” the professor added. “I would say Kurz’s chances are not too bad.”
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