Years of blatant racism and far-right views have not been enough to bring down the leader of the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), Heinz Christian Strache. Now, he has brought himself down. The reason? A two year old video was made public by two German newspapers showing Strache and his party colleague Johann Gudenus meeting an alleged niece of a Russian oligarch in a villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza. In a relaxed atmosphere Strache offered public procurements and the takeover of the “Kronen Zeitung”, the most read newspaper in Austria. Among other things, Strache called journalists “whores”, said that “the FPÖ wants to establish a media landscape like the one in Hungary” and that “they want to open up the country to the east, to Russia”. Strache also admits that there are a few rich individuals and firms that pay between 500,000 and 2 million euros to influence Austrian policy making.
Strache and Gudenus walked into a trap, it was a sting operation. The supposed Russian oligarch was hired for this set-up, by whom is still unclear. Nevertheless, it unmasked Strache’s true political ambitions, his understanding of the rule of law and democracy and his readiness to sell of the country to a foreign power for political gain. Ironic, considering Strache always claimed to be the “man for the people” with an apparent agenda of “national sovereignty”.
After the publication of the “Ibiza-Files” Strache resigned, as did Johann Gudenus. Following that, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), called for new elections. While investigations are still ongoing regarding the source of the video, why it hasn’t been made public for two years, and what all of this means for the overall political developments in the country, there are several things that Europe can already learn from the political turmoil in Austria that has unfolded over the last couple of days:
- What the far-right actually stands for: The far-right often portray themselves as the “true” representatives of the people, those who are holding our societies together and have been overlooked by the political system. They use migrants and other minorities as scapegoats for pretty much everything that is not working in our societies. Strache has showcased the agenda he and the far-right all over Europe is actually pursuing: It’s about sustaining and gaining power. And for that the means don’t matter. May it be the abolishment of press freedom, the usage of illegal money, corruption and fraud or the involvement of foreign powers.
- Stop opening doors for the far-right: You can’t govern with a party that doesn’t respect the basic principles of a democratic society, a lesson Austrian Chancellor Kurz has learnt the hard way. Those who decide to go into coalitions or cooperate with the far-right have to carry the responsibility of such a choice. When Kurz decided to form a coalition with the FPÖ, he was very well aware of their attitudes towards rule of law, press freedom and, of course, their far-right and racist ideologies. There is a responsibility of established parties to protect their citizens and democracies, despite some possible short-term political gain, from the detrimental effect of having the far-right in power. Even more so, Kurz has been riding the band-waggon of the far-right rhetoric of the FPÖ, incorporating anti-immigration policy into his own party.
- Consequences for democracy and distrust are severe: Political disengagement is rising all over Europe and these incidents contributes to the notion that politics is just a means to an end, a form of self-enrichment and the preservation of power through corruption. The fact that you can buy public opinion and laws is the reason why democratic politics does not properly work. Looking beyond the Ibiza scandal, this will continue to be a major problem in Austrian and European politics, an issue that needs to be addressed on all levels so that trust is regained in policy makers and our democratic institutions.
- Without strong, independent media our democracies don’t work: The infringement of the freedom of press has been shaking our democracies all over the world, and increasingly also in Europe. The revelation of the Strache’s plan to fundamentally undermine press freedom in Austria must be a warning sign to all countries in Europe that see far-right parties rising. Protect your journalists! Protect your press! They are the backbones of our societies and will reveal the inconvenient truths the powerful don’t want the public to see.
This week, we will vote for our representatives in the European Parliament. The only way to contribute to a better, socially inclusive, more democratic Europe is to ballot for progressive parties that hold up the values of rule of law, press freedom, social progress and transparency. Austria has learnt the hard way what happens if you don’t, let’s make sure we spare ourselves that experience.