The Viennese Swamp: Corruption and Attacks Mark Austrian Election Year

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A screenshot of the new advertisement created by the right-wing populist party BZ ahead of state elections in Carinthia. Zoom

A screenshot of the new advertisement created by the right-wing populist party BZ ahead of state elections in Carinthia.

Austria's political leadership has been mired in a swamp of scandal in recent months. With four state elections and a national poll scheduled for this year, the mudslinging has thus far been intense. The campaign has become particularly absurd on the far right.

Carinthia, the state in southern Austria, is in the grip of a group of political leaders who are just as bad as some of the worst dictators and war criminals recent history has produced. That, at least, is the message delivered by an advertisement recently created by the right-wing populist party Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZ).

The ad, developed to be shown primarily in movie theaters ahead of a regional election in March, is called "Path to Freedom" and it portrays state political leaders interspersed with images of a handful of well-known dictators, including Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu, Slobodan Milosovic of Serbia, East German leader Erich Honecker and the recently deposed Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

"The time has come for us too," the ad intones. "Now!" It ends with an image of the famous raising of the US flag on the island of Iwo Jima in World War II. Instead of the American flag, however, the soldiers are raising the gold, red and white flag of Carinthia. "Free Carinthia on March 3, 2013," is the final message.

The advertisement is nothing if not overwrought. But as Austrians prepare for a quartet of state elections this year in addition to the general election set for September, its shrillness demonstrates the degree to which politics in the country has decayed in recent years. Rocked by a burlesque series of scandals and an ongoing -- and increasingly absurd -- power struggle among right-wing populist parties, the campaigns promise to be tasteless in the extreme.

The list of scandals is long and involves lawmakers from almost all the country's parties, but so far it has been the center-right Austrian People's Party (VP) and the right-wing populist Freedom Party (FP) that have suffered the most. Several former cabinet ministers from the 2000-2007 governing coalition which paired the two parties are under investigation, with some having been indicted. The list of transgressions includes bribery, passing on insider information during the privatization of public housing companies, accepting money to influence European Union law-making, nepotism in connection with the over-priced purchase of flu medication, money laundering and kick-backs connected to the 2007 sale of the state bank Hypo Alpe Adria. Among others.

Swamp of Corruption

In a recent report completed by the Green Party on the parliamentary committee investigation into the extent of corruption in Austria, the party came to the devastating conclusion that the country had "no serious laws to combat corruption" prior to June 2012, when a package of measures was passed. The country's dominant political culture promotes "corruption in two ways: there is no tradition of resigning from office and there is a culture of acquiescence."

Almost every party in the country has become mired in the swamp of corruption in some form or another, leading to voter disillusionment. The Social Democratic party SP and the VP had hoped to continue their governing coalition beyond the autumn election, but that prospect looks increasingly endangered. Voters are unsure of where to turn.

Many have opted to throw their support behind the billionaire political neophyte Frank Stronach, who has found some success in taking advantage of the unbroken string of scandals. A critic of the European Union but otherwise centrist in his outlook, Stronach -- founder of the auto parts company Magna -- has said he wants to emerge from this year as the country's strongest party. With Stronach currently polling between 7 and 10 percent, that isn't looking likely. Still, his popularity is surprising, particularly given that he has yet to present any kind of a political platform.

The 80-year-old Stronach will get his first progress report at the beginning of March, when voters in the state of Lower Austria head to the polls. And he has not been shy about criticizing the state's current governor Erwin Prll, an VP member who has led the state since 1992. Prll, says Stronach, is a "terrible manager" and has governed his state "almost like a dictatorship."

'Hateful and Offensive'

It is the right-wing populists, however, who are perhaps facing the most decisive election year as two groups battle for supremacy. The face-off is the legacy left by Jrg Haider, who founded the FP before breaking with the party in 2005 to found the BZ. Since then, the two parties have been battling for control of the right wing, with the Freedom Party of Carinthia cooperating with the FP.

The power struggle is at times marked by an almost unbearable pathos. Kurt Scheuch, the head of the Freedom Party of Carinthia, recently published a "letter" to his deceased "friend Jrg," in the party's own paper, Krntner Nachrichten. "We are taking care of your Carinthia, my friend," Scheuch wrote.

The BZ was furious, commenting that it was a "disgusting attempt by the betrayers of Haider" to claim him as their own. It was the latest salvo in a strange fringe war. Indeed, just a year after Haider's death -- the right-wing idol died as a result of driving under the influence in 2008 -- the Carinthia chapter of the BZ broke off from the national party to work together with the FP.

Bitterness, in short, is plentiful. As is desperation. The FP has recently found itself sliding in the polls, in part because of the role its politicians have played in various corruption scandals. Whereas the party polled an incredible 29 percent in 2011, raising its hopes of moving into the Chancellery in Vienna, more recently it has slipped behind the SP and the VP and is polling 23 percent.

And the situation is even more threatening for the BZ. The party may have difficulties even surviving this year's string of elections; it is polling just 2 percent on the national level. The party's new advertisement isn't likely to help. So far, most cinema operators have refused to play the spot, saying it is "hateful and offensive."

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