After the collapse of the Austrian coalition government following a scandal in May (dubbed ‘Ibiza-gate’), things looked remarkably positive for the country’s left-wing. Now that campaigning is underway, however, the outlook is less rosy: the leader of the Social Democratic (SPÖ) party is struggling with image issues and sniping from within, while the majority party of the last government, ÖVP, blazes ahead in the polls. They are predicted to win a minority government.
The current snap election, which will be decided in September, was called after the release of a secretly recorded video in May this year. The video seemed to show shady dealings between Freedom Party (FPÖ) politicians – who were part of the governing coalition with ÖVP – and a woman posing as the daughter of a Russian oligarch. The video shows a meeting in Ibiza, Spain, in July 2017, where the two politicians discuss providing business favours in exchange for positive coverage. They also hint at having made similar deals in the past.
The release of the footage in May was explosive, and the coalition government was dissolved by May 18. Sebastian Kurz was ousted as chancellor in a vote of no confidence by the Parliament, and replaced by an interim government on the 28th of May. Kurz may have got off lightly: it has been claimed that the 32-year-old ex-chancellor had been aware of the footage long before it became public. One magazine claims to hold emails that, if real, would show he knew of the footage as far back as February 2018.
And this is not the only scandal Kurz and the ÖVP need to contend with. Last week, the party was accused of secretly destroying data, according to a report in Falter magazine. Security footage shared with the magazine shows an anxious-looking man visiting a data destruction company in Vienna on May 23, using the alias, “Walter Maisinger”. He’s carrying five hard drives, which he promptly passes through a shredding machine twice.
A company employee later saw “Maisinger” standing next to Kurz on TV. From there it was discovered that he was actually Arno M – a close aide of the ex-chancellor. Kurz claims the destruction of the hard drives was “legitimate” because the drives contained sensitive data.
Despite these scandals, the ÖVP is still riding high in the polls. Current figures project that Kurz will win with 37% of the vote – an overall increase from the 31.5% the party won back in 2017. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats – the most significant left-wing party in Austria – seem not to have picked up any new support: the party still lags 15 points behind the ÖVP in the polls. If accurate, it would mean a historically low result for the party.
Seeking a source of blame, there are those who look to the party leader, Pamela Rendi-Wagner. The former physician became party leader just last year, and only joined the party the year before. She has made a poor public impression, and has been criticised as an over-sensitive perfectionist. She has also been the target of overt criticism from inside the party: stemming both from concern over her suitability as chairman and mild policy disagreements, such as over property tax.
Unlike the Social Democrats, the two smaller parties – the Neos and the Greens – have done quite well out of the upheaval; the Greens especially, whose support has leapt from just over 5% to 12% since May.
Meanwhile, as his competitors flounder, Kurz acts as if nothing has changed. The former chancellor has been photographed hiking through the Tyrolean Alps and shaking hands with farmers in village markets. He has gone abroad and met with German Chancellor Merkel and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. It looks from the outside as though he still leads the country. He almost certainly will do again.