The Austrian Chancellor was forced to resign amid a corruption scandal. But the nominee for his succession, a loyalist career diplomat, is not likely to change anything that allowed the ‘System of Kurz’ to take grip of the country.
For some time, the 35-year-old Sebastian Kurz was one of Europe's shooting stars. The youngest chancellor in the world and celebrated by Newsweek as a "Wunderkind," Kurz was hailed as a hero by German news media and conservative politicians.
But as quickly as he rose, he fell. At least for the time being.
Two years ago, Kurz ended his cooperation with the former leader of Austria's far-right FPO and Vice-Chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache. The government was subsequently dissolved over a major scandal known as the Ibiza Gate Scandal.
Back then, Strache had to resign from both posts after a video was revealed showing him appearing to offer public contracts in return for campaign help from a fake Russian backer.
But while Strache had to resign in the wake of the Ibiza Gate Scandal merely for his intention to buy up the biggest tabloid to strengthen his party, the current crisis is even more fundamental.
In contrast to the wishful thinking of FPO-Strache, Kurz and his closest confidants seem to have turned precisely those fantasies into a reality that almost made Strache a political persona non grata. At least, that is the view of the Public Prosecutor's Office for Economic Affairs and Corruption (WKStA), which, on the basis of a concrete suspicion, has named Kurz and some of his closest associates as defendants on suspicion of embezzlement, corruption and breach of trust.
Several offices were raided by the WKStA, which is investigating the chancellor and nine other individuals and three organisations, including Kurz's governing party, the Austrian People's Party (OVP).
The fragile position of Kurz
While Kurz has not been willing to show any remorse for the first few days, he has now vacated his executive chair on Saturday evening after investigative journalists from the weekly investigative magazine Falter exposed conversations in which Kurz and his close circles expressed themselves in the most condescending and insulting manner toward former party leaders whom they pushed from power to take complete control over the party.
In fact, when Kurz took over the party in 2017, he seized all power by changing the party's constitution. The OVP was at a low in the polls.
Today, if the suspicion is true, we know that some of these polls were reworked by Kurz's power circle, apparently in exchange for millions in media funding from the Ministry of Finance.
The media made Kurz a rising star, who was supposed to help the down-and-out party of old men to rise to the top with Kurz's populist clan.
But the price paid by the OVP was high: All power became centralised in the hands of the new young party leader. Kurz changed the party's design from black to turquoise and filled important posts with people who belonged to his loyalist inner circle.
Just as the chancellor was a perfect media star, the ministers gathered around him were primarily meant for presentation. Politics in Austria became all about communications policy. Factual politics disappeared.
With a co-optation of a formerly far-right anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant politics, Kurz's OVP distracted the electorate, based on equally falsified and commissioned studies, from what was really going on behind the scenes.
As a result of positioning his very own loyalists, Kurz managed to take a complete grip over his party. But the emerging scandals weakened him and finally allowed the grand old OVP governors to force him out of his position.
Best strategic decision for OVP and for Kurz
Kurz pre-empted a move by the opposition parties, who wanted to introduce a motion of no confidence. Also, some governors are said to have put pressure on Kurz. If they had faced a vote of no confidence, the OVP would have been history, and opposition parties would have formed a new government along with the remaining coalition partner, the Greens.
Three players won with Kurz's resignation and the proposal to appoint Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg as chancellor. After all, the Greens are still in government and can claim to have stood up against corruption - a traditionally important issue for the Greens. On the other hand, the OVP remains in power. And Kurz's loyalists also remain in control, for now at least.
A Kurz loyalist and career diplomat, Schallenberg now takes over the system Kurz installed. But, moreover, Kurz does not leave altogether. He remains the party leader and even wants to become the party whip for the OVP in the national parliament. This would allow him to continue pulling all the strings together, and shows that Kurz is willing to emerge from this crisis as a leader once again.
But will the old leadership of the OVP allow him to do so?
One high-ranking governor has already declined that Kurz could even run for election again. But several of Kurz's key figures are still in place in central positions of the government. And Schallenberg has fully embraced Kurz’s foreign policy, aligning with far-right politicians abroad and rallying against a liberal European Union with the help of politicians like Orban.
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