Austrian People’s Party calls alleged hack an ‘attack on democracy’

News comes ahead of snap election and after revelation party broke spending laws

 People’s Party leader Sebastian Kurz. Photograph: Kerstin Joensson/AP Photo

People’s Party leader Sebastian Kurz. Photograph: Kerstin Joensson/AP Photo

 

Three weeks before a snap election, Austria’s conservative People’s Party has said it has discovered and closed down a hacking operation on the computer network of its Viennese party headquarters.

The news came days after leaks suggested the party breached a campaign funding ceiling in its efforts to re-elect its leader, Sebastian Kurz, as chancellor. While Austrian parties cannot spend more than €7 million on their campaign, an Austrian magazine claimed the Kurz party had spent nearly €9 million so far – after breached spending rules in the last election, too.

The People’s Party said in response the claims were “partly wrong”. But its second information leak in recent weeks prompted Austria’s conservatives to have their computer network examined by experts. Party officials say this turned up someone using unauthorised administration access to the system.  

“There was a very targeted hacker attack on the servers of the People’s Party with the goal of removing, inserting, manipulating and falsifying data,” said Mr Kurz at a press conference, saying the goal was to “link true and false, and damage us at the election”.

“This is not just an attack on the People’s Party but also an attack on the democratic system,” he added.

Coalition collapse

Austrians go to the polls on September 29th, just two years after the last election. The coalition government that took office in 2017, of People’s Party and the populist and far-right Freedom Party, collapsed in May.

The two parties fell out after a video emerged of Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache in Ibiza apparently offering public contracts for party funding from a Russian oligarch.

The bad-tempered collapse of the government, and installation of a caretaker government, has not shaken up Austrian politics as some expected.

Despite the graft claims, support for the Freedom Party is steady at about 20 per cent, just five points down on its 2017 election result. And, though leading on 36 per cent, Mr Kurz’s party is lacking enough support for an outright majority.

It’s unclear what new coalition will emerge from the election, with 60 per cent of conservative People’s Party voters opposed to reviving its controversial alliance with the populist Freedom Party.

Mr Kurz pulled the plug on the alliance in May claiming his populist coalition allies were “damaging the reputation of the country”.

But with other parties wary of sharing power with Mr Kurz, it is not unthinkable that Austria’s last coalition parties will take office once more – providing, People’s Party officials say, the populist party completes a full investigation of the so-called Ibiza affair.

Full investigation

For its part the Freedom Party has suggested, without offering evidence, that the Ibiza video and the People’s Party hacker attack originated with the same source.

It has demanded a full investigation by Austria’s national security council, saying: “Preventing such democracy-endangering attacks in relation to elections is a fundamental concern for the security of Austria.”

Although the former coalition parties are competing against each other in the campaign, each has accused the other of copycat tactics for using an identical campaign slogan for its respective lead candidates: “Someone who speaks our language.”

In keeping with recent years in Austria, the election campaign so far has been dominated by security and migration issues, in particular welfare for and deportation of foreign nationals. The collapsed coalition sparked controversy for creating a two-tier welfare system that offers higher payments for Austrian nationals.

The issue of external EU borders is also in focus on the Austrian election campaign. To avoid losing voters to the Freedom Party, Mr Kurz has maintained his hard line on migration, saying a strong EU outer border would save lives of migrants.

One reason so many people have taken risky journeys across the sea to Europe, he said in a television debate, is “because the EU lured them”.