In May, the Ibiza scandal of then FPÖ chair and Vice-Chancellor Strache not only ended a coalition but the Austrian government. Days before the election this Sunday the affair seems forgotten and Sebastian Kurz is on the verge of becoming chancellor again.
Weeks of hard-fought, and for west European standards, at times, dirty campaigns are coming to a close. The parties’ top candidates have appeared on TV and print media almost daily to bring across their visions for a better version of Austria after an incident that shook Austria’s democracy to its core.
The scandal in May had the potential to cost Kurz much more than just his office. At the very least, a steady decline in popularity was likely, the end of his career not inconceivable. Yet, the former chancellor has managed to emerge strengthened, despite his prominent role in the Ibiza saga.
It was Kurz, who pushed for a coalition with the right-wing FPÖ and its controversial chair Strache in 2017 against considerable resistance. However, Kurz, after being deposed by parliament in May, seamlessly transformed from statesman to campaigner and portrayed himself as a victim of parliamentary anti-ÖVP forces, that ceased his tenure.
The transformation has been highly successful. All polls indicate an ÖVP win, leaving the country with one remaining question: who will become the ÖVP’s junior partner and Kurz’s kingmaker? Kurz’s ÖVP (35%) remains comfortably ahead of the SPÖ (20%) and his former coalition partner FPÖ (21%).
The figures, as well as the election campaigns, suggest an ÖVP-FPÖ revival. Kurz has repeatedly stated how well the former government worked and has not been shy in mentioning its achievements either. It is a carbon copy of new FPÖ chair Hofer’s suggestive remarks, who, as Austria’s only top politician, has openly declared his preference – a renewed partnership with the ÖVP.
An incumbrance remains former Minister of the Interior Herbert Kickl. Kurz ousted Kickl in the scandal’s immediate aftermath due to “conflicts of interests”. However, Kickl, as well as Hofer, have stated their desire for Kickl to return to his previous position. Kickl himself went one step further and named the latter a coalition requirement.
Meanwhile, Kurz continues to rule out Kickl’s comeback and has prominent support from Austria’s president Alexander Van der Bellen, who has publicly stated he will not accept Kickl as Minister of the Interior.
The SPÖ and its chair, Pamela Rendi-Wagner has expressed interest in a coalition with Kurz also. Her interest may come as a surprise, considering the SPÖ triggered the motion of no confidence against Kurz and subsequently ended the former government.
Moreover, the SPÖ chair has utilised almost all her TV appearances – some of which featured Kurz as well – to conduct a character assassination of the former chancellor, accusing him of powerplays detrimental to the country chastising Kurz for his partnership with the right-wing FPÖ.
However, Rendi-Wagner is not undisputed within her party, and the purely politically motivated move to vote Kurz out of office never provided the SPÖ nor Rendi-Wagner with much-needed popularity, as the polls display.
A subpar result on Sunday could put her on the hot seat. Hence, she is in desperation mode and thus willing to entertain coalition negotiations, as an SPÖ government participation can only be facilitated as the ÖVP’s junior partner. The attacks on Kurz can thus be seen as a political acting job to appease the SPÖ base.
These circumstances put Kurz in a remarkable position and provide him with significant leverage, courtesy of FPÖ and SPÖ. Rendi-Wagner’s desperation makes it much easier for Kurz to negotiate with the FPÖ as he will be coming from a position of strength, which allows him to play both parties against each other. With one inevitable result: Kurz will be the winner regardless.
The irony of the Ibiza saga cannot go unnoticed. What could have been a career-ender for Kurz, will likely make him and his party more powerful, more dominant in setting the agenda than in the previous coalition – regardless of his new partner – while Rendi-Wagner, who should have been the primary beneficiary, may face political exile if her party’s result on Sunday turned out to be a disappointment.