By: Andreas Maltan
Skiing, culture, and leisure; Austria is a relatively small central European nation famed for its picturesque mountains, rolling plains, and admirable quality of life index. As a popular tourist destination, it is easy to think of Austria as a beautiful and laid-back gem snuggly tucked in-between Eastern and Western Europe – a quiet nation of little troubles with no scandal or outrage.
But ongoing political events cast a long shadow of darkness over this ideal. Sebastian Kurz, leader of the People’s Party, resigned as Chancellor this October; just a few weeks shy of one the most important national holidays which celebrates Austria’s everlasting principle of neutrality. Seen as a young, vibrant, and competent politician by many, Kurz is now leader of his party in the Nationalrat – the lower house of Austria’s Parliament. But Kurz did not resign as Chancellor without reason; hundreds of pages of leaked documents suggest that Kurz, and his inner circle, used government money to bribe a widely circulated tabloid with the intent of altering public opinion polls. These documents were used by public prosecutors to secure search warrants for various high-profile homes and offices, not least the Chancellor’s office itself. Pressure started to grow and calls for Kurz’s resignation intensified. Kurz then, as he argues, resigned voluntarily to ensure that political stability can be ensured in face of a looming vote of no confidence.
But his resignation from the Chancellorship did not signal a departure from politics entirely. Instead, as mentioned above, he is now the People’s Party leader in the lower house of Parliament. It is important to note that, whilst members of the Nationalrat enjoy legal immunity from public prosecution, the Chancellor does not. As such, Kurz is now ‘shielded’ from investigation and/or public prosecution, because he legally resigned as Chancellor and joined the lower house. Furthermore, his legal immunity here is guaranteed by the constitution; though a request to suspend his immunity has been made and it is likely that this will be granted through a parliamentary vote.
The new Chancellor who replaced Kurz, Alexander Schallenberg, is a close political connection of Kurz. Schallenberg previously served as the foreign minister and became involved with the People’s Party after connecting closely with Kurz and his inner circle. As such, many have argued that Kurz is the de facto Chancellor and that Schallenberg’s impartiality is compromised; he is seen by some as a Schattenkanzler – a ‘shadow Chancellor’ – with Kurz wielding more political prowess than the current Chancellor Schallenberg himself. Important for us to know is that Schallenberg is not part of the corruption allegations outlined in the leaked documents and that the Green’s, the minority party of this government, have accepted Schallenberg as a replacement – for now.
As far as we can tell the leaked documents reveal no hard evidence of corruption. They are circumstantial by nature and are mostly known for the strong, though amusing, profane WhatsApp messages sent between Kurz and his inner circle. However, an arrest has been made because of these leaked documents and, as such, there is cause to believe that incriminating information on Kurz may be available to public prosecutors. But members of the lower house enjoy legal immunity which ‘shields’ them from investigations or public prosecution – a privilege not afforded to the Chancellor. Kurz cannot be investigated as of this date and so, it appears, Kurz’s resignation may not have been purely selfless or voluntary; but that is just a thought and observation.
It is important that we recognize these ongoing developments not only as the internal politics of a small central-European nation but, instead, see them as a vehicle by which we can drive debate and ask questions. Is it, for example, right that a Chancellor does not enjoy prosecutorial immunity under the law? And is it fair that a Chancellor can resign from a ‘higher’ political position and then, in turn, assume a ‘lower’ political position which affords them with the privilege of legal immunity? Also, is it right that a close political contact can now assume the Chancellorship despite an inner circle of corruption allegedly being in place? Nepotism or corruption are not new to Austrian politics. We remember former Vice-Chancellor HC Strache, of course, and the sting-operation video which emerged of him drunk, snorting cocaine, and flirting with a fake Russian oligarch’s niece whilst discussing media manipulation. HC Strache was forced to resign in 2019, was dropped by his Freedom Party and, this August, was sentenced to a fifteen-month suspended jail sentence. He managed to collapse the then government on his way out, too. HC Strache became a persona non grata in the political world of Austria. Kurz, however, is not – despite serious allegations of corruption and overwhelming circumstantial evidence against both himself and his inner circle. He continues to hold significant political power in government which affords him with the right to attend senior ministerial meetings, to rule the People’s Party he so strongly restaffed and is said to have an eye on the upcoming elections; his chance to, legally, return as Chancellor is possible.
It is important to remember that the Unschuldsvermutung – loosely the ‘assumption of innocence’ – is in place and applies both in court and in public alike. HC Strache was therefore innocent until sentenced this August. And, as such, Kurz, and anybody else under Austrian law, is innocent until proven guilty. So, in spirit of the questions asked above, is it fair that public opinion, as a ‘quasi legal instrument’ or, perhaps, as a ‘vigilante tool’ of its own, has the power to judge politicians and has the power to entirely reshape their (political) careers, too? Political controversy is nothing new, of course, as we know from Dominic Cummings’ ‘eye-test-drive’ to Barnard Castle, Boris Johnsons’ Downing Street flat refurbishment and now the developments surrounding MP Own Paterson. Regardless, democracy demands that we ask questions and are inquisitive. Every political scandal is therefore a chance to reflect on our political and legal system alike and a chance to also challenge our political representatives and their actions.
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