Voters drift away as Austria's political corruption carousel grows more crowded

Sat, Dec 29, 2012, 00:00

VIENNA LETTER:Brimming with corruption scandals, Austria resembles GUBU-era Ireland

Austrian voters don’t know how lucky they are to have morally upstanding politicians such as Ernst Strasser. Two years ago the former interior minister turned MEP was approached by British lobbyists who had heard he was the man to get things done in the European Parliament.

They told him they wanted to influence an EU directive obliging retailers to accept scrap electrical goods for recycling. Strasser replied that, for an annual retainer of €100,000, he would be happy to do their bidding. The lobbyists turned out to be British journalists. They published their story and posted videos of their encounters on YouTube.

Only then did Strasser show his hand.

He told the Vienna court where he is on trial for corruption that he had long suspected the lobbyists of being CIA agents and went along with their scheme, not for personal gain but to find out what they wanted and expose them.

“They wanted to bribe me but would have been banging their heads against a brick wall there,” he announced, to laughter in the courtroom.

The Strasser show is likely to end next month but there are plenty of other cases to take over. Reading Austrian newspapers these days, brimming with reports of colourful corruption and political brass neck, is like travelling back in time to the more grotesque days of Ireland’s GUBU era.

Almost all the cases originated in what the opposition Green Party calls a “corruption swamp” of the decade-old conservative coalition of ex-chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel and the far-right People’s Party (FPÖ).

They took office vowing to fight corruption but now five former Schüssel ministers are being investigated. One-time matinee idol finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser is on trial, suspected of passing on insider information on the sale of public housing and collecting bribes funnelled through a Liechtenstein foundation.

Kickbacks

There are allegations of kickbacks worth more than €1 billion from Austria’s purchase of 15 Eurofighter planes a decade ago; Schüssel’s defence minister faces bribery and money-laundering charges; and another inquiry is investigating irregularities at the national phone company involving the former vice-chancellor and infrastructure minister.

The corruption allegations extend even beyond the grave. Four years after his death, the ghost of far-right populist Jörg Haider hangs over a long-running trial into the sale of the public bank Hypo Alpe-Adria. Prosecutors say the transaction, overseen by the former Carinthian governor, was a political slush-fund masterclass, with Haider and his allies pocketing millions from commissioning overpriced reports from consultants.

Rather than put their hands up, the FPÖ and Schüssel’s conservative People’s Party (ÖVP) bristle at claims they enjoy a monopoly on graft. They point to allegations that the current Social Democrat chancellor, Werner Faymann, during his time as transport minister, leaned on the public train company and others to run advertorial favourable to him in the national media.

Austria’s political corruption carousel is so crowded, and spinning so fast, that many voters have walked away in disgust. Just one-quarter are still interested in domestic politics, according to a recent poll, while 82 per cent say they have no trust in the countrys political leadership.

Corruption perception index

Earlier this month, Austria dropped nine places to 25th place in the Transparency International corruption perception index compared with last year – down from 16th place in 2005.

That set alarm bells ringing for President Heinz Fischer. Describing the scandal swamp as “shameful and sad”, he has called for a “clean-hands policy” – an allusion to the Italian anti-corruption investigations of the 1990s that exposed graft and broke up old political structures.

But with an election year looming – with elections to national and four state parliaments – there is a limited appetite among political parties to come clean just now.