Austrians spent the week reeling from last Friday’s bombshell — in a secretly filmed video, Deputy Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), discussed trading government contracts for campaign support with a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch.
Explosive excerpts of the seven-hour footage show Strache smoking and drinking with his fellow party member Johann Gudenus in a villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza. In the video, filmed two years ago, Strache appears to suggest the Russian woman buy Austria’s largest tabloid newspaper, the Kronen Zeitung, and turn it into a mouthpiece for the FPÖ.
The video, which was originally provided to German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung and German magazine Der Spiegel, prompted a political crisis unprecedented in Austria since the end of World War II. In just five days, the otherwise quiet and stable alpine republic witnessed a cascade of events: the resignation of Vice-Chancellor Strache, firing of the far-right Interior Minister Herbert Kickl, mass resignation of all other FPÖ ministers, a call for a snap election in September, inauguration of an interim expert government and a no-confidence vote in the Austrian parliament scheduled for Monday.
So what does this all mean? Here are four areas to watch:
1. New questions about Russian influence
Heinz-Christian Strache, a trained dental technician, has headed the Freedom Party since 2005. A former Nazi and SS officer founded the FPÖ in 1956 as a Germanic national liberal party. It currently has a far-right, populist, anti-immigrant and pro-Russian profile. In 2016, the FPÖ signed a cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party.
The video seems to suggest Strache was willing to compromise Austrian institutions and media in return for Russian money. Concretely, he appeared to suggest government construction work could be given to the fake Russian niece, should she decide to purchase parts of the Kronen Zeitung. He also seemed to suggest donations could be provided to FPÖ-friendly associations instead of directly to the party, thus circumventing control by Austria’s audit court.
The video was a trap — the purported Russian niece was a hoax and the FPÖ apparently received no Russian money. While it still remains unclear who originally ordered the setup, it has become public that a Viennese lawyer is somehow implicated.
But to many commentators, the footage did confirm Austria’s image as a country susceptible to Russian influence.
Indeed, Austria, which has close historical ties to Russia, refused to expel Russian diplomats after the Skripal poisoning last year. Moreover, Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl famously danced with Russian President Vladimir Putin at her wedding, sending out a message that critics say undermined the country’s credibility as a reliable partner in the European Union.
With the FPÖ in charge of Austria’s defense, justice and interior ministries, Western intelligence agencies reportedly excluded the country from some intelligence sharing to prevent information from falling into the Kremlin’s hands.
2. Sebastian Kurz’s coalition is under pressure
Despite the FPÖ’s xenophobic and pro-Russian profile, Sebastian Kurz, Europe’s youngest leader, opted to form a coalition with the party after winning the election in 2017.
Kurz rose to power on an anti-immigrant platform, calling for stricter border controls and a clampdown on migration. He rebranded Austria’s conservative People’s Party and moved it further to the political right. Conservatives in Europe saw this as a model for how mainstream parties could successfully navigate the rise of populist parties across the continent. But to his critics, Kurz legitimized the far-right and made their ideas acceptable in the political discourse.
Many now question whether the Ibiza video — which led to the coalition’s breakup after only 17 months — will also bring an end to Sebastian Kurz’s political model. Recent polls, however, suggest Kurz remains popular. His party gained four percentage points in the first poll after the scandal broke. But according to that same poll, the conservative party enjoys 38 percent support, which means Kurz will need a coalition partner to govern again after the snap election in September.
3. There will be ripple effects across Austrian politics
Kurz’s controversial move to form a coalition with the FPÖ also made him a target of criticism of the opposition. During the past 17 months, Kurz was regularly under fire for ignoring the opposition altogether and for failing to attend parliamentary sessions on a regular basis.
This runs counter to a long tradition in Austria, where mostly grand coalitions of social democrats and conservatives have governed since the end of World War II. At the time, both parties established the “Social Partnership” or Sozialpartnerschaft, an informal way of balancing interests between industry and labor market policies. Austrian political scientists have argued how the system has contributed to the country’s economic, social and political stability during the past decades.
Kurz now faces an opposition that is both frustrated and angry by the way he has governed the country. What happens next? The smallest of the opposition parties has initiated a no-confidence vote against the chancellor. To oust Kurz, both the Social Democrats and the FPÖ would have to support the no-confidence motion. They are still weighing how they will vote.
4. And there’s a broader impact on the E.U. elections
Austria needs political stability, particularly because the country has to retain its ability to act on a European level.
Heads of state will gather for a European Council meeting on May 28, just one day after the planned no-confidence vote in the Austrian Parliament. The summit meeting will discuss the outcome of the European Parliament elections and start the nomination process for the heads of the E.U. institutions, which have to be replaced after the elections. This would be a critical time to have strong Austrian representation. In the event of a successful no-confidence vote against the chancellor, there will be very little time for the Austrian president to nominate his successor.
Populist and far-right parties across Europe were projected to gain seats in the European Parliament elections taking place this week across Europe. Many European politicians now hope the fallout from the Ibiza video will damp voter support for these candidates. Experts and initial polls predict that in Austria, at least, the far right will lose votes as a result of the scandal.
Stephanie Liechtenstein is a freelance journalist and diplomatic correspondent based in Vienna. She has written widely on Austrian politics, multilateral diplomacy, foreign and security policy, international organizations and East-West relations. You can follow her @StLiechtenstein.