The Irish Times view on Austria’s coalition collapse: Kurz’s big gamble

A snap election will not automatically deliver a better government

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz after announcing new elections in Austria in a statement in Vienna on Saturday. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz after announcing new elections in Austria in a statement in Vienna on Saturday. Photograph: Christian Bruna/EPA

 

Less than two years after it came to power on an anti-corruption platform decrying the supposedly rotten elite that ran Austria, the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) is reeling from the resignation of its leader after an apparent sting in which he promised government contracts for campaign money.

Heinz-Christian Strache stepped down as vice-chancellor on Saturday, a day after German media published footage secretly recorded in Ibiza in 2007. The video purported to show Strache promising government contracts in exchange for political donations from a woman posing as a member of a Russian oligarch family. The FPO leader said no crime took place and blamed a “targeted political assassination” for his downfall.

The scandal has rippled widely. “Enough is enough,” said conservative chancellor Sebastian Kurz as he promptly announced a snap election, which is likely to take place in September. Kurz and his right-wing People’s Party no doubt see an opportunity to cut ties with their junior coalition partner, the FPO, with opinion polls suggesting Kurz’s party has been increasing its support and is within touching distance of an overall majority.

By lurching to the right on immigration and national identity questions, Kurz has legitimised many of the FPO’s positions

If that were to happen, or even if it were to come close, Kurz – the EU’s youngest leader – would claim vindication for his strategy of veering sharply to the right in order to tame the FPO and limit its electoral progress. In reality, the FPO has been the architect of its own problems – undone by scandal and by the failings of its leaders.

The collapse of the coalition is good news. But to assume that the FPO has been dealt a fatal blow, or that the social democrats can perform a revival, is wishful thinking. Even factoring in the decline in the FPO’s support since the Strache scandal, the party remains on a significant 18 per cent in opinion polls. By lurching to the right on immigration and national identity questions, Kurz has legitimised many of the FPO’s positions, giving it a firm foothold in the mainstream of Austrian politics. In bringing down the government, the chancellor has gambled that the FPO will collapse. That’s far from a safe bet.

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