Aftershocks in Austria: The Big Political Mess Drags On

Update 8:00 p.m.: All FPÖ ministers leave Chancellor Kurz’ government.

When Austria’s conservative party ÖVP formed a coalition with the far-right FPÖ, the European Union was not happy at all. In Brussels, the governments of all other E.U. states decided to impose what they called “sanctions” against Austria. What this meant was that they would limit diplomatic contacts to a minimum.

This is what happened in the year 2000. Today’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was 14 years old when this happened. In 2017, as the youngest Chancellor ever, he would pick the FPÖ as a junior partner for his government coalition.

Today, after the video scandal which brought down the FPÖ’s chairman Hein-Christian Strache along with Kurz’ government, critics say Kurz should have known. Teaming up with radical right-wing populists had to lead to a major scandal, they believe.

After Sebastian Kurz put his cards on the table on Sunday, telling the Austrian nation that “enough is enough”, effectively ending the coalition, a power struggle developed on Monday. Kurz was going to fire his Minister of the Interior, Herbert Kickl, a far-right FPÖ guy who has caused his share of scandals too.

But then Austrian media reported Kickl would remain in office, at least for now. Chancellor Kurz, who seemed so determined to get it over with just 24 hours earlier, gave in to the FPÖ’s demands, in spite of the fact that they had caused one of the biggest political crises in the country’s recent history.

On Monday, Minister Kickl took the decision to name Peter Goldgruber Director for Public Security at his ministry, even though he knew his chair was very shaky because of his party chairman’s video scandal. Like Kickl himself, Goldgruber has been in the center of scandals before the Strache video surfaced.

Kickl probably thought his decision was smart, until Austria’s President Alexander Van der Bellen thwarted the plan. He refused to confirm the candidate, saying the usual procedure was not to confirm anyone into higher positions in interim periods.

Of course Kickl complained, saying Chancellor Kurz had known Goldgruber was the main candidate for the job. Two days after the political earthquake in Vienna, the FPÖ does not seem to understand it is over.

The video scandal which lead to the earthquake had been published by two German publications, ‘Spiegel’ and ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’. When the story broke, German politicians had commented on the crisis publicly, demanding an end to Kurz’ coalition with the radical right-wing populists.

Now Austria is wondering just how much influence the big northern neighbor has. This includes the media, but also Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, the ÖVP’s German sister party. Its new chairlady with that long name, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, sounded like she knew what to do before Kurz did. Germany did put the government in Vienna under pressure, to say the least.

On the other hand, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz himself likes his German connection. On Sunday, he agreed to an exclusive interview with the German ‘Bild’ tabloid, a publication which seems to be more important to him than those in his own country.