It seems not far-fetched to compare the recent stability of Austrian governments and their respected leader(s) to the tension and absurdity of a modern casting show. Full of rising stars and fallen heroes, sometimes combined within the same person, surrounded by a tornado of entertaining intrigue and perfectly timed scandal. Occasionally, the audience can participate in this colourful confusion, voting on whom it wants to send to the next round. And as always with such entertainment programmes, it is the most enjoyable for those who can watch from the side-lines – in other words mostly non-Austrians intrigued by this sitcom.
But even beyond the borders of the Alpine Republic, the events of the past few years are worth looking at. After all, they influence the foreign policy of an EU member country that is engaged on many platforms and furthermore represents the fourth largest economy in Central Europe. In addition to that, studying the Austrian case provides valuable insights behind the scenes of Central Europe’s most exciting game of intrigue in recent years.
But before Austria became a never-ending casting show, it all started quite promisingly with one candidate. Back in 2017, all signs seemed in favour of Minister for Foreign Affairs Sebastian Kurz, the young shooting star of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). After turning the dusty and stolid Conservative Party into a one-man show, making turquoise the new black, Kurz was elected Austria’s youngest chancellor and the world’s youngest head of government at the age of 31. Transforming the Catholic value-conservative and at the same time center-oriented catch-all ÖVP of the last century into a modern right-wing populist party, he seemed to combine everything the Alpine republic craved for: self-confidence, charisma and a basic conservative stance with a focus on anti-migration. Austria seemed to have found its idol.
It took only two years until Kurz’s shiny turquoise armour got its first cracks. In May 2019, the German newspapers Süddeutsche and Spiegel published a video recording of then Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache during a vacation in Ibiza. The highly controversial right-wing populist was seen offering to a fake Russian oligarch to take over Austrian newspapers for good publicity. This scandal forced even a hardened scandal-monger like Strache to resign the subsequent day. In the evening of the same day, Chancellor Kurz declared the government coalition with the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) to be over and was deposed by the opposition with a motion of no confidence. For the transitional period until a new election and formation of government, presumably under the same leader, a technocratic government was formed under the lead of the non-party official Brigitte Bierlein as the first woman chancellor of the Alpine Republic, a unique and short-lived exception to this day.
In the wake of the next parliamentary election in 2019, the Conservatives emerged as the undisputed winner with 37 % of the total vote. The scandal surrounding his coalition partner had done nothing to harm the turquoise super chancellor, and so a new coalition partner was quickly found: The Green Party was given the privilege of crowning Sebastian Kurz for a second term, supporting his conservative, anti-refugee course without objection. Since then, support for the still young chancellor remained largely stable for the two years to come until 2021. During this period, Austria stood out in foreign policy primarily in two respects: Firstly, due to its critical stance toward migration of any kind and its attempts to engage with the right-wing populist leaders of Poland and Hungary in that respect. And secondly, with regard to Austria’s position as one of the so-called “Frugal Four”, a group of Central and Northern European states (together with the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden) that became the focus of attention especially during the pandemic, by advocating tight fiscal policies and rejecting common debt. Within these two circles, Austria seemed to have found a stable role in the EU structure, so far so good.
But the supposed calm clouded and, as with any exciting casting show, the next scandal was already waiting around the corner. In May 2021, investigations were launched against Kurz for possible false testimony before the so-called “Ibiza inquiry” committee, and in October raids took place at ÖVP headquarters and the Ministry of Finance on suspicion of embezzlement and bribery against the chancellor and members of his cabinet, including allegations of buying positive poll results with taxpayers’ money. After his previously line-loyal coalition partner questioned Kurz’s integrity, the twice-awarded Austrian Idol winner resigned on October 9 of this year. Finally, on December 2, the disgraced superstar declared his retirement from politics, citing newfound fatherly feelings after the birth of his first son two weeks earlier.
What remains is a jumble of replacement chancellors: Kurz’s direct successor, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg, declared in his first government statement that he would continue Kurz’s course unchanged, which quickly earned him a reputation as a puppet being controlled by “shadow chancellor” Kurz. His tenure was short-lived, however, as he resumed his old post after just 52 days, the shortest term of any Austrian chancellor, and handed over the chancellorship to newly elected ÖVP chairman Karl Nehammer on December 6. That makes a total of four chancellors with five terms since Kurz came into office in 2017, debunking the cliché that politics in the German-speaking part of Europe is characterized by an addiction to stability and eternal chancellors of the Angela Merkel type. The latter, by the way, saw a total of eight chancellors come and go during her sixteen years in office – eleven even, if you count all the transition candidates. It is difficult to predict whether the Austrian personnel shuffles have thus come to an end for the time being, and likewise what the chancellor currently in office (as of December 16, 2021) will mean for Europe. Karl Nehammer proved to be a hardliner on migration when he was Minister of the Interior and the newly appointed candidate to replace him in this position, Gerhard Karner, already faced demands for resignation for a lack of distancing from Austrofascism. Presumably, the Austrian position within the migration-critical bloc of Central and Eastern Europe and as part of the Frugal Four in the European northern axis will not change at all, certainly not under an Austrian conservative, and possibly not even if the ÖVP is punished for its personnel quarrels in the next election. It remains to be seen whether the turquoise ÖVP which was tailored to the figure of Sebastian Kurz can endure without him. Some faithful Kurz fans still believe that their fallen hero will rise like a phoenix from the ashes as the only true legitimate chancellor of the Alpine republic in a few years’ time, once the dust that has been stirred up in recent months has settled. While the situation remains exciting and entertaining for outsiders, most Austrians might wish that the never-ending casting show will not go into a next round very soon, a show that the majority of the population would surely have liked to cancel a few seasons ago.