A scandal in Austria

Australians can turn with some relief from their own election to a similarly-named country on the other side of the world, where the far right, for once, has suffered a major setback.

Austria’s government has been in office for a year and a half. I was there for the election that produced it – you can read my reports here and here. Basically, the three main political forces of centre-right, centre-left and far right were returned in comparable strength, winning 62, 52 and 51 seats respectively in the 183-seat parliament.

The outgoing government had been a grand coalition between centre-left and centre-right. It collapsed when Sebastian Kurz, the young new leader of the centre-right People’s Party, decided to take his party to the right so as to steal voters away from the far-right Freedom Party.

The strategy worked. The People’s Party topped the poll, and Kurz formed a coalition with the far right. Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache became deputy chancellor.

The idea was that the far right would be kept in a subordinate place, given that Kurz always had the option of going back to the Social Democrats if need be. And the polls duly showed the far right losing some of its popular support to the centre-right.

Then last weekend it all came to grief in spectacular fashion. Strache was caught on tape trying to attract clearly illegal campaign donations from Russian sources prior to the last election, and implicitly promising to align his party with Russia’s interests.

In perhaps the most damning line, he says that he would like to “build a media landscape like Orbán,” referring to the government-dominated media of neighboring Hungary.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of the Four Corners exposé earlier this year where One Nation operatives were recorded seeking funding from the American gun lobby. But to get the force of it you have to assume that One Nation had previously been brought into coalition with Pauline Hanson as deputy prime minister, and that it was Hanson herself on the tape.

Strache resigned after the video was released, but pressure quickly built on Kurz as well, and on Sunday he announced that he would end the coalition and call fresh elections, probably in early September.

But there will be another election well before that: on Sunday Austria goes to the polls, like other European Union members, to elect its members of the European parliament. The Freedom Party, which was set to play a leading role in the new far-right grouping Alliance of People and Nations, will now have to scramble to recover its standing.

The potential repercussions go well beyond Austria. Far-right leaders in many countries have worked to rehabilitate their parties, to try to assure voters that they represent just another option on the political spectrum rather than an alien force dedicated to the destruction of democracy and national independence.

Strache’s words belie that promise. The question is whether the rest of his political movement can effectively be tarred with the same brush.

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