Austria’s Haus of Cards

Austrian politics are rarely dull, but a dirty tricks scandal that exploded two weeks before next Sunday’s general election has left even battle-worn veterans of the country’s raucous campaigns stunned.

“This is without a doubt the dirtiest election campaign we have ever experienced,” said Eva Linsinger, politics editor at weekly Profil, which was first to uncover the details of the underhanded tactics.

The scandal began when it emerged that outside consultants working for Chancellor Christian Kern’s Social Democrats (SPÖ) were behind a racist Facebook campaign aimed at undermining his opponent, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). The Facebook pages distorted Kurz’s views on immigration and other issues and were laced with anti-Semitic innuendo.

The affair got murkier over the weekend after a consultant involved in the smear said that one of Kurz’s closest aides tried to lure him away from Kern’s campaign with a cash payoff totaling €100,000. The ÖVP denies the accusation.

“I don’t appreciate it when politicians from other countries get involved in our domestic politics” — Sebastian Kurz, Austrian foreign minister

Meanwhile, the two parties, which have governed together in a grand coalition for more than a decade, have besieged Austrian prosecutors with criminal complaints against each other, alleging everything from espionage to racial incitement.

The growing scandal has overshadowed the country’s most significant parliamentary campaign in nearly two decades.

Not only are Austrians poised to elect Kurz, a man of just 31, to lead the country; perhaps more significant is that for the first time since 2000, the anti-immigrant Freedom Party (FPÖ) has a good chance of joining the government.

Kurz’s ÖVP is leading the polls with more than 30 percent, while FPÖ has been in a dead heat with the SPÖ for second place, scoring about 25 percent in recent polls.

Even if the Freedom Party finishes third, most political observers expect Kurz to pursue a coalition with the far right in order to break the political gridlock the country has seen after years of the grand coalition.

Unlike in 2000, when the ÖVP’s decision to form a government with the FPÖ triggered diplomatic sanctions against Vienna by other European Union members, Austria’s partners are unlikely to do more than wring their hands this time around.

It’s Austria’s business

Europe has become a different place since the Freedom Party, then led by the charismatic Jörg Haider, shocked the world by storming into government.

Not only are populists in power in Hungary and Poland (not to mention the U.S.), but the Freedom Party’s brand of far-right politics has taken root across Western Europe, including in Germany.

Though Kurz, who was only elected party chief in July, has declined to publicly discuss what his preferred coalition would be, he has made it clear he expects the rest of Europe to keep its nose out of Austria’s affairs.

Sebastian Kurz rose to prominence during the refugee crisis by pushing for the closure of the so-called Balkan route | Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images

“I don’t appreciate it when politicians from other countries get involved in our domestic politics,“ he said in an interview with Austrian radio that aired on Saturday.

Kurz rose to prominence during the refugee crisis by pushing for the closure of the so-called Balkan route, once the preferred path for refugees traveling from Turkey to Northern Europe. Austria, like Germany, took in a large number of refugees during the crisis but the influx led to a political backlash amid concerns over whether the country could cope with the burden.

The Freedom Party was initially the main beneficiary of those worries but Kurz, by taking a hard line on immigration and taking credit for slowing down the flow of refugees, succeeded in winning back voters’ trust.

Along the way, Kurz often clashed with Chancellor Kern, whose Social Democrats have struggled to gain traction. Relations between the two governing parties, which have ruled Austria together for most of the post-war period, have been strained for some time.

The deepening divide between the parties amid the SPÖ’s sagging fortunes might explain why the party decided in January to hire Tal Silberstein, an Israeli political consultant who has built a reputation for using unorthodox methods.

According to Silberstein’s contract, which the SPÖ has released, his firm was hired to conduct focus groups and also provide polling and opposition research.

It appears Silberstein didn’t stop there. After initially denying the SPÖ was involved in the subversive Facebook sites, the party acknowledged that Silberstein had concocted the plan.

On one of the Facebook pages — “The truth about Sebastian Kurz” — the foreign minister was portrayed as a tool of American financier George Soros, who was secretly planning to open Austria’s borders to another wave of refugees.

Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew who has spent millions promoting democratic ideals throughout Central Europe, is a favorite target of far-right groups.

That’s why many Austrians wrongly assumed the right-wing Freedom Party, which often plays on anti-Semitic stereotypes, was somehow involved in the attack on Kurz.

That the ruling SPÖ, a party that has stood against anti-Semitism since its founding more than a century ago, was responsible left most of the country shocked. Even more surprising was that the man allegedly behind the dirty tactics was an Israeli political consultant.

Austria’s Haus of Cards

Chancellor Christian Kern (left) and Minister for Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz (right) during an election television debate on October 1 | Georg Hochmuth/AFP via Getty Images

By the time news of the Facebook campaign hit in late September, the SPÖ had already severed ties with Silberstein. The party let him go in August after Israeli authorities arrested him for alleged money laundering. Silberstein has denied the accusations.

Though Kern and other party leaders denied any knowledge of the Facebook scheme, SPÖ General Secretary Georg Niedermühlbichler took political responsibility and resigned on September 30.

Question of trust

The move did little to calm the waters, however.

SPÖ officials went on the offensive over the weekend, pointing to fresh evidence suggesting that Kurz’s spokesman, Gerald Fleischmann, sought to poach a Silberstein partner.

The partner, Peter Puller, told Austrian media on Thursday that Fleischmann had offered him €100,000 in mid-July “to switch sides.” After Fleischmann denied the accusation, Puller disclosed his text message correspondence with him.

In the exchange, which the ÖVP acknowledges is authentic, Fleischmann offers to meet Puller during the first week of August.

“Maybe you’ll know something by then and we can discuss your fee for PR,” Fleischmann wrote.

“I did everything I could to find out the truth” — Gerald Fleischmann, Kurz’s spokesman

While the two men did meet again, they have offered diverging accounts of what transpired. So far, there’s no evidence money ever changed hands.

Fleischmann has said his motivation for meeting Puller was not to pay him off, but to get to the bottom of the fake stories about Kurz.

“I did everything I could to find out the truth,” he said in a statement on Friday.

Whatever happened, the truth is unlikely to emerge before election day.

The political mudslinging between the two ruling parties could end up damaging both while giving a boost to the Freedom Party, which has long maintained that the mainstream parties are hopelessly corrupt.

Peter Filzmaier, a leading Austrian political analyst, warned on Sunday that the biggest victim from the affair won’t be an individual party but “our trust in democracy.”

Source: Politico

The Baltic Review
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