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BERLIN, GERMANY – JANUARY 15: Sebastian Kurz, Foreign Minister of Austria, speak to the media on January 15, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)
The fall of Austria’s Sebastian Kurz has lessons for every democracy

The fall of Austria’s Sebastian Kurz has lessons for every democracy

BERLIN, GERMANY – JANUARY 15: Sebastian Kurz, Foreign Minister of Austria, speak to the media on January 15, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)

Yet again, we are learning how fragile the systems and conventions of supposedly stable democratic systems truly are

Sebastian Kurz, who served as Austria’s chancellor until earlier this month, was a master of image-building. In the just over four years since he first took over leadership of his conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) at just 30 years old, he raised it to new electoral heights by mixing hardline immigration rhetoric with sleek, personality-driven politics and calls for a “new style” of governing. 

His success at the ballot box quickly made him the envy of conservative parties across Europe. As chancellor, his government was known for what’s referred to informally in Austria as “Message Control,” a relentless internal focus on ensuring a certain narrative about the government is the one represented in media and public life.

But on one recent Saturday evening, as Kurz announced his resignation at the Austrian chancellery in Vienna, that talent for image and narrative control seemingly reached its limit. For months, Kurz and several of his close associates had been embroiled in a corruption investigation. Although he repeatedly and vehemently denied all allegations of wrongdoing, claiming they were the result of a partisan campaign against him, a new round of revelations and incriminating chat transcripts from messaging apps proved too much for Kurz’s coalition partners, the Greens, who indicated they would support a vote of no confidence against him. 

Clearing the way for Austrian foreign minister and close ally Alexander Schallenberg to take over as chancellor, Kurz said he was certain he’d be exonerated and framed his departure as a selfless act of national duty. “My country is more important to me than my person. What it needs now is stability,” he said. “In order to resolve this stalemate, I will step aside to prevent chaos and ensure stability.”

Kurz’s decision was, in some ways, proof that Austrian democracy is working: A leader has allegedly done corrupt things, that leader is responsible to the Austrian people and institutions, and ultimately bows to pressure to resign. Taken together with headlines from the Czech Republic that same night – where Prime Minister Andrej Babiš’s party sustained electoral losses after corruption allegations of his own – the events bolstered a narrative that in Central Europe, which has been beset by illiberalism in recent years, democracy is fighting back.

That argument is true, on its face. But considering Kurz’s legacy in Austrian politics only with reference to its denouement would be to ignore the ways in which he and his party sought to subvert or undermine democracy when it served their political interests. Over the last year, they have repeatedly attacked Austria’s judiciary as politically motivated; they have sought, directly or indirectly, to influence media coverage, even going as far as allegedly using taxpayer money to pay for manipulated polls inflating their support. And throughout it all, Kurz has blurred the lines between populist rhetoric and traditional conservative fare, becoming almost indistinguishable from the far right on issues like immigration and contributing to an increasingly polarised political environment. 

Austria is by no means in the same situation as neighbouring Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has worked to eliminate independent journalism, attack civil society and hobble his political opposition. It is not Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice Party under Jarosław Kaczyński has fought a battle with the independent judiciary and sought to stamp out what they call “LGBT ideology.” Austria may not be Poland or Hungary – but to look at the country under Kurz over the last four years is to see, at times, early echoes of its illiberal neighbours – ones that could have long-term effects on the state of democracy here.

Often when issues of democracy come up, Hungary and Poland are put in their own separate box from democracies further west in Europe, said Natascha Strobl, a political scientist and author of Radicalised Conservatism, which explores how conservative parties’ rhetoric has taken a right-wing turn in recent years. Austria has always straddled the space between eastern and western Europe, she added: It’s a Central European country but without the Soviet history of many of its neighbours; it’s home to the United Nations and has a positive image internationally. “Then someone like Kurz comes along, who’s young and very mild-mannered in his way of speaking,” she said, and when it comes to his commitment to democratic values, “You believe him more than you do Orbán or Kaczyński. That’s what makes him so dangerous – and that’s what he has always built on.” 

It has been a tumultuous few years in this small Alpine nation. Since 2016, the country has gone through five different chancellors. Along the way, there has been no shortage of political drama, much of which feels straight out of a television series: Not one, but two major scandals in barely more than two years have rocked its government. 

When Kurz became ÖVP leader in 2017, he portrayed himself as a sleek, fresh-faced force for renewal ready to bring Austria out of years of political gridlock. Changing the ÖVP’s colour from black to turquoise and its name on election ballots from the “People’s Party” to simply an eponymous list, he argued passionately for a “new style” of politics and said his party was a “movement.” That message propelled the ÖVP to 31.5 per cent and him into the chancellery, leading a coalition with the far right Freedom Party (FPÖ).

But that right-wing government lasted less than 18 months before a secret video taken on the Spanish island of Ibiza – featuring the then-FPÖ leader promising government contracts in exchange for favours from a woman they believed was the niece of a wealthy Russian oligarch – took down his coalition partner and eventually the entire government, leading to snap elections two years ago. 

Kurz, despite being ousted by a vote of no confidence in the wake of that scandal, managed to separate his own political future from that of the FPÖ. Portraying himself as the steady hand for Austria in a time of political crisis in the 2019 snap elections, his party increased its vote share to 37.5 per cent. Just a few months later, he was back in the chancellery, this time leading a governing coalition with the Greens. 

The real problems for Kurz and his allies, however, began not long after that government took office. As parliamentary and criminal investigations into the so-called Ibiza affair widened in scope, politicians from Kurz’s own party came under suspicion too. A scandal surrounding a casino group and its ties to certain business and government officials raised questions about whether those officials traded gaming licenses for various favours. Earlier this summer, Kurz was indicted for allegedly giving false testimony to a parliamentary committee investigating the Ibiza affair, which raised the political stakes for him and his government. 

But most damaging was another round of reports earlier this October. Investigators alleged Kurz was behind a plan to use taxpayer money to pay for self-serving polls, then offering news organisations prime government-sponsored advertising revenue if they published and wrote about the numbers. Authorities raided the ÖVP party offices; hundreds of pages of chats obtained by investigators documented the cut-throat ways in which Kurz operated behind the scenes and engineered his own political rise. 

In one exchange, he wrote about trying to tank a government-funded daycare plan in order to keep his predecessor as ÖVP leader (who he referred to as an “ass”) from scoring a policy victory. In other emoji- and exclamation-point-filled missives, he wrote openly with aides and colleagues about getting the ÖVP-friendly polls published in the tabloid Österreich (“Austria”). In short, the new revelations shattered Kurz’s image as a fresh purveyor of a “new style” of politics: To get to the highest office in the land, he had been willing to do whatever it took. 

In their 2018 book How Democracies Die, political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue that democracies rarely end the way we often imagine they do, with bloody wars or dramatic military coups. These days, the end of democracy begins at the ballot box: Democratically elected leaders chip away at key institutions, work to hobble their political competition and change the rules of the game to keep them in office. 

Although those efforts are not so blatant or so clearly calculated as they are in, say, Hungary, Kurz and the ÖVP have adopted elements of those strategies in recent years. When it comes to the media, Kurz and the government’s “Message Control” worked relentlessly to promote Kurz’s image and influence coverage in their favour. Kurz had a habit of calling up journalists directly or having aides reach out on his behalf when he felt their stories were unfair.

In a move reminiscent of the early days of Orbán’s reign in Hungary, Kurz’s team also distributed the ample government advertising funds available for Austrian media in ways that rewarded those outlets that wrote more favourably about his government and disadvantaged critical journalism. And most blatantly, as the recent revelations show, Kurz and his allies worked with a friendly pollster to engineer surveys – at the government’s expense – that served their political needs and made the ÖVP look good, rewarding editors and publications who were willing to run those numbers. 

Meanwhile, Kurz and his ÖVP allies have spent nearly two years lambasting the judiciary as a left-wing conspiracy intended to tank his party’s fortunes. Starting in early 2020, when the ÖVP first came into view of investigators on Ibiza-related issues, Kurz and other top leaders have argued they are motivated by a partisan desire to hurt the ÖVP and get Kurz out of office. That rhetoric has intensified over time, even targeting specific judges or prosecutors. Earlier this summer, he even went as far as to compare the judiciary’s efforts against him with sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, a comment that caused outrage in this traditionally Catholic country (Kurz quickly apologised for the remark).

“The investigation to date shows that there were frequent attempts at deliberate obstruction of the justice system… This is one dimension which is really important,” Ruth Wodak, a linguistics professor at the University of Lancaster and the University of Vienna who is an expert in far right rhetoric, told me recently. “Obviously, as you can observe in Poland, in Hungary and the United States under [former President Donald] Trump, attacking the judiciary is used to undermine democracy.”

Whether this is truly the end for Kurz’s national ambitions, however, is still an open question. Shortly after he stepped down, the ÖVP announced he would remain party leader and also helm its parliamentary group. And Schallenberg, who took over as chancellor, is a close ally of Kurz’s, leading to speculation about how much influence the former chancellor will still have over the office. (An accidental tweet from Kurz’s account intended for Schallenberg’s, with a photo and description of “my first trip as chancellor,” was a Freudian slip that many saw as representative of how entwined the two politicians will remain.) 

Kurz, along with his allies, insists he is innocent until proven guilty and that he will ultimately be exonerated. In his resignation speech, Kurz took a somewhat defiant tone, speaking of the universal human propensity to make mistakes but avoiding an explicit apology for his actions. Party leaders and government ministers have lined up behind him, including Schallenberg himself: Asked in one of his first interviews as chancellor whether Kurz has the “moral integrity” to become chancellor again, Schallenberg answered: “Absolutely.” 

For the ÖVP, this is not just about loyalty to Kurz, but deep political necessity. Having spent the last four years basing its identity almost solely on Kurz, the party would be essentially rudderless without him. That fact became clear in a poll released last week, which showed the party’s lead had evaporated practically overnight: The ÖVP was now tied with the centre-left Social Democrats at 25 per cent, a far cry from their previous support.

And yet, with the looming threat of further chat records and more corruption allegations coming out — not to mention the prospect of Kurz being tried and convicted, even given a jail sentence — it’s impossible for Kurz to once again occupy the high-profile role he has held these last four years. This puts the ÖVP in a difficult spot should, as some expect, another round of snap elections be called for sometime next year.

In the meantime, the coalition will go on with Schallenberg at the helm; many of the aides and ministers closest to Kurz remain in their posts. What comes next for him, and for the strategies and rhetoric he engendered within his party, remains to be seen. In Austria, “democracy still works, and the rule of law still works,” said Strobl. “But it must be said, it has really been pushed to its limits.”

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist, based between Vienna and Berlin. She writes primarily about German and Austrian politics and the rise of populist far right parties across Europe. Previously, she was a fellow with the Institute of Current World Affairs.