Austrian scandal tarnishes populist parties ahead of elections
With European elections being held between Thursday and Sunday this week, Europe’s leaders said the Austrian corruption scandal showed that far-right parties were being controlled by Russia.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz sacked his extremist interior minister, triggering the collapse of his coalition. The vice-chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, was exposed as offering to exchange road construction contracts for the cash from a fake Russian donor.
Strache’s Freedom party (FPO), the junior partner in the government staged a mass resignation from his cabinet.
The FPO is a key member of an alliance of European populist parties led by Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Lega, who held a joint rally in Milan on Saturday with the National Rally of France’s Marine Le Pen and Germany’s anti-migrant Alternative for Deutschland.
Kurz sacked Herbert Kickl, the FPO interior minister in charge of the police and security, who wanted to lead the investigation into his own party leader.
The chancellor hopes to replace the Freedom party ministers with civil servants before an election in September. But the 32-year-old’s administration may topple before that after the opposition parties announced a vote of no confidence would be held.
“On the international stage, this incident has been a huge blow to this country’s good name,” Kurz said.
“A few months ago, Marine Le Pen was singing the praises of Heinz-Christian Strache, saying how formidable he was,” said France’s economy minister, Bruno Le Maire. “He has been forced to resign. We find out why: he was caught trying to sell his services to foreign forces. Behind this nationalist movement is a submission to foreign forces.”
The secret video from a luxury villa in Ibiza in July 2017 shows Strache solicit donations from a woman posing as the niece of Igor Makarov, a Russian oligarch. She says she wants to invest €250 million of “not entirely legal” cash. The Freedom party leader suggests that she set up a road-building company so he could hand her motorway contracts taken from Strabag, an Austrian industrial firm.
The FPO was reported to have followed through on Strache’s plan as a “gesture of goodwill” to the Russian woman.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticised “politicians for sale”, saying Europe was facing “populist movements that in many areas are contemptuous of European values, who want to destroy the Europe of our values. We have to stand up to this decisively.”
Strache said the Ibiza meeting had been a lone, “drunken incident” but the Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that his aide, Johann Gudenus, had held another meeting with the supposed donor’s representatives in August 2017.
Gudenus purportedly suggested that the party issue a press release denouncing Hans-Peter Haselsteiner, an owner of Strabag’s owner, for “maintaining political networks with his chequebook”. The Freedom party press release was issued the next month.
Another recording has emerged where Strache attempts to dissuade the woman from investing her money in Serbia and Croatia, which he calls “a piece of shit”.
Populist parties prosper if there is a low turnout. Picture credit: Wikimedia