The House of Kurz Austria's Chancellor on the Defensive

Investigators are looking into both Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and many of his closest allies. There have been allegations of lying under oath and of cronyism. The young head of government is facing his most difficult challenge yet.
By Walter Mayr in Vienna
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz

Foto: Christoph Ruckstuhl / NZZ

He’s a little paler than usual, and even thinner than he’s always been. But as soon as he starts talking in the backseat of his government-issued BMW sedan, Sebastian Kurz sounds as though not much has changed for him in the last several months – despite the assorted ongoing investigations that directly relate to him and several of his party allies.

On this recent Tuesday, Austria’s chancellor had a meeting with his counterpart in Bratislava. The Slovakian capital is located just an hour’s drive away from Vienna, but it is nevertheless far away from the problems in which Kurz’s party, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), and his government have become mired. Now, on the drive back, Kurz is discussing those problems, which he portrays as little more than an envy-driven campaign involving the opposition and elements of the judiciary. "We have won two elections and have been in power for several years. That, of course, leads to resistance from other parties.”


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 25/2021 (June 19th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.

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Seen from up close, the young man sitting in the back of the BMW seems to be more concerned with the presumed unfairness of the world around him than he is with self-reflection. It looks as though he is wondering: What did I do wrong? Why this sudden hostility? The chancellor says he has long since overcome the initial shock and resisted the temptations of self-pity. Plus, he adds, public opinion polls show that the ÖVP is still at the same level it was in January.

The Fragile "House of Kurz"

For years, Kurz’s political career followed a constant upward trajectory. The Vienna native was first appointed to a cabinet post at the age of 24. At age 30, he promised that he would do everything differently if he were elected chancellor – more efficiently and more transparently. Now, four years later, his job-approval ratings are sliding. The "House of Kurz” is in danger of collapsing like a house of cards, says the media. The heat is on the Austrian chancellor.

Matthias Strolz, former head of the NEOS party, accuses Kurz and his team of "structurally fascist methods” due to their repeated verbal attacks on the country’s public prosecutors. Leading politicians with the Green Party say the behavior of their coalition partner is "unacceptable” and "unworthy” of such a party. The initiators of an anti-corruption referendum said last Tuesday that Austria is "approaching a tipping point,” and that respect for the rule of law and the country’s democratic institutions has recently been eroding. Among the critics is the ÖVP’s former spokesman for judiciary issues.

“I will never be able to change the fact that a lot of people attack me every day."

Sebastian Kurz

Is Kurz completely unaffected by the harsh criticism? "I will never be able to change the fact that a lot of people attack me every day. But it doesn’t particularly surprise or bother me after all these years,” the chancellor says.

Heidi Glück, the long-time spokeswoman for ex-Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, also of the ÖVP, has a different view. "He is suffering because the shine is off,” she says. "Kurz and his people have understood that they are in a downward spiral and they are wondering how to get out of it.”

The avalanche that has been careening toward the chancellor for the last several months threatens to knock over central pillars of the Kurz system – assuming state prosecutors haven’t overplayed their hand. Kurz himself is suspected of having provided false testimony to a parliamentary investigative committee and he could find himself in court as early as this fall. Meanwhile, close confidants like Finance Minister Gernot Blümel and Chief of Staff Bernhard Bonelli are also under investigation for different infractions. Other former ÖVP ministers and dignitaries with close ties to the party likewise find themselves in the judiciary crosshairs. All of the accused reject the allegations that have been leveled against them.

Whether the evidence will prove sufficient for indictments or even convictions remains unclear. Kurz says he suspects that his particular case will lead to charges, but he believes many of the other cases will merely produce protracted and ultimately fruitless legal proceedings.

Chat Carelessness

Ever since the publication of the Ibiza video in 2019 – which appeared to show Kurz’s then-Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache exuding drunken enthusiasm for all manner of corrupt offerings being delivered by a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch – resulted in the collapse of Kurz’s first government, the Austrian judiciary has been pursuing a number of broad investigations in an attempt to determine who may have granted whom influential postings and what favors may have been received in return. Essentially, the goal is to determine how deeply corruption may have gnawed its way into the republic’s central nervous system. And the clearer prosecutors believe their view to be – thanks to data found on confiscated mobile phones – the bleaker their findings have become.

The investigators have been helped by the carelessness with which Kurz and others in his immediate orbit communicated via various apps. Had they been more careful about using chat platforms equipped with an auto-delete function, voters would never have learned certain crucial details. As it is, though, details from the investigation and new accusations are hitting the headlines on an almost daily basis. The dominos, it seems, are falling one by one.

"We’re not like that,” insisted Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, after the 2019 video of an inebriated Strache and another senior politician from the right-wing FPÖ party rattled the country. Wrong, many people in Vienna are now saying, apparently we are - their skepticism being fed by a steady trickle of material from deep inside the circles of power. Hundreds of thousands of text messages are coming together to form an image of a hubristic and ambitious clique.

Is the image being drawn by the media of the chancellor and his cronies accurate? A bunch of cocky strivers abusing their power? Some of the chat logs certainly make it seem so. "You’ll get everything you want anyway” (the chancellor to his confidant Thomas Schmid, who is hoping to become the head of the 27-billion-euro state holding company ÖBAG). "I love my chancellor” (Schmid to Kurz). "Kurz can now shit money” (Schmid to Finance Minister Blümel, after he helped increase the budget available to Kurz, who was foreign minister at the time). "You owe me” (Schmid to Kurz). "You’re family” (Blümel in a Cosa Nostra-esque message to Schmid).

The list could go on and on. For example, the most powerful official in the Justice Ministry, who has since been suspended, wrote a message late one night in which he said the investigations against Kurz’s party are akin to a "putsch.” He also scornfully suggested to ex-Vice Chancellor Wolfgang Brandstetter that the country’s Constitutional Court – which he believes to be incompetent – be sent "to Cuba.” For his own wife, meanwhile, who is the president of a regional court in Graz, he bluntly requested a promotion.

A Decisive Boost

After the Ibiza video came out, FPÖ head Strache sought to play it down by calling it a "drunken adventure.” Could it be that the details emerging from the ÖVP are ultimately worse, because they appear to be drunk on power?

Kurz’s rapid rise got perhaps its most decisive boost just over 10 years ago. On the evening of April 18, 2011, it became known that the young Viennese politician Sebastian Kurz would be appointed to the position of state secretary for integration. Immediately, a handful of men and women gathered in a wine bar next to City Hall and, later, in party headquarters next door – a group that, in the coming years, would intently pursue their goal of consolidating power in the country.

Among those present that evening was Stefan Steiner, a lawyer who spent most of his formative years in Turkey, a "law and border man,” as he is called. Steiner remains the group’s primary strategist. Axel Melchior was also there, a long-time friend of Kurz’s and the current general secretary of the ÖVP. Gernot Blümel, the finance minister, was likewise in attendance. Later, the devout Catholic Bernhard Bonelli and the rock musician and PR expert Gerald Fleischmann would join them.

It was primarily Steiner and Bonelli who would lay the groundwork for Kurz’s rise to the top of the government six years later. Their detailed battle plan was so extensive that it even contained notes for the "Day of the Takeover”: "act professionally, but make it look natural.”

As author Klaus Knittelfelder writes in his book "Inside Türkis” about Sebastian Kurz’s rise and the people who made it possible, the chancellor’s tightly bound contingent was "not a group of opportunistic Bobos who hold no convictions,” nor is it a repeat of the ambitious, rakish young clique that backed right-wing politician Jörg Haider to power in the 1990s. The chancellor’s inner circle, Knittelfelder writes, is partly made up of a circle of "stalwart conservatives” who have grown to trust each other over the course of years, if not decades.

That is both the strength and the weakness of Kurz’s system: The members of the group that is running Austria know each other well. They have a clear hierarchy and are extremely efficient from a technocratic perspective. Conversely, that means that external advice, alternative approaches and, especially, warnings of approaching storms can only penetrate the chancellor’s camp with delay, if they get through at all.

A visit to Sebastian Kurz at the Chancellery leaves one with the impression of being inside an extremely functional flat share. Men in dark suits silently rush by following meetings with "the boss,” including his close confidant Steiner (brother-in-law of the defense minister) and Bonelli (for whose wedding Kurz served as best man). Press spokesman Johannes Frischmann (a former colleague of Kurz’s girlfriend Susanne) is usually close by, busy with trying to control the image of the chancellor in the media. Even Finance Minister Gernot Blümel – Kurz’s long-time confidant and vacation companion – makes occasional appearances.

Do such high-level friendships serve to promote cronyism? And if they do, is the phenomenon unique to the ÖVP? No, says Austria’s leading political scientist Peter Filzmaier. "Pretty much all of the political parties have pursued this system for decades. It could only change if such quid-pro-quo appointments were punished by the voters, but that is hardly ever the case.”

Austria’s postwar political order was dominated for decades by the Christian Democrats on the center-right and the Social Democrats on the center-left. Posts and allotments were almost exclusively handed out on the basis of party membership. This system, says Filzmaier, "was magnified under Bruno Kreisky, intensified by the absolute majority he enjoyed.” The Social Democrat Kreisky was in power from 1970 to 1983.

"Everything Is Tailored to Him"

The practice of installing party members in key positions in ministries and industry continued. According to a 2013 study on the distribution of senior posts in companies that were majority owned by the government revealed that of 1,242 top executives in Austria, far more than half had clear ties to a specific political party. "The new aspect of Kurz’s system is that everything is tailored to him as an individual and no longer to the party,” says Filzmaier. "People will rise and fall with him, which is dangerous.”

Austria’s political landscape is full of swamps, Austrian President Rudolf Kirchschläger said back in 1980. During his term in office, the country was rocked by the so-called "AKH scandal,” involving large-scale bribery and corruption surrounding the construction of a hospital in Vienna. And by the Lucona affair, an insurance fraud scheme which involved the blowing up and sinking of a freighter – the Lucona – in the Indian Ocean, resulting in the death of six of 12 crew members, and in several high-ranking Social Democrats losing their jobs. Even in more recent history, says Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler of the Green Party, there would have been good reasons for taking a closer look at the "role of the Social Democrats” in this or that affair. Kogler is also demanding that Kurz’s ÖVP not cast doubt on the work of investigating prosecutors. "We should let the judiciary do its work without batting an eye. We’re talking about the foundation of a liberal democracy.”

Kogler doesn’t seem particularly stressed by the current situation, nor by the complicated position in which his party finds itself. On the one hand, he praises the cooperation with Kurz and Blümel in the coalition government. On the other, he tends to leave the criticism of the ÖVP up to other members of the Green parliamentary group.

In the parliamentary committee investigating "probable corruption" of the ÖVP's previous government, Green Party parliamentarian Nina Tomaselli has upped the pressure on her conservative coalition partner. In an interview in a Viennese coffee house, she says: "The ÖVP is using endless procedural debates to impede our interrogations, and some, like Finance Minister Blümel, put their contempt for the parliament on full display.”

Still, short of a conviction of the chancellor, a collapse of the coalition is considered highly unlikely. "In new elections, the Greens would face a possible return to the opposition, and they enjoy being in government so much, it almost hurts to watch,” says political scientist Filzmaier. Plus, there is little desire within ÖVP ranks to put an end to the alliance with the Greens.

When complaints are voiced, they tend to come from the former ÖVP party leaders. The incumbent chancellor has been criticized for lacking "the substance and the courage to take on large projects. Kurz and his bunch are mostly busy with themselves.” Yet more than the lack of seminal reform projects, representatives of the traditional ÖVP with its rural roots are critical of the tone revealed in the chat messages that have come to light. When representatives of the Catholic Church are mocked and when men in power send vulgar comments and kiss-emojis back and forth, they say, it is bad for the party’s brand.

Because of the upcoming EU summit, the parliamentary investigative committee’s latest questioning of Kurz, originally planned for next Thursday will not take place. As things currently look, the committee will issue him a summons for a session in July. A decision as to whether to initiate possible criminal proceedings will likely only be made after the summer break.

Only then will it become clear if the political high-flyer will come crashing back down to earth. Or whether, instead, a Kurz confidant is right when he says: "If a court declares the chancellor not guilty, the most sensational comeback since Lazarus will follow” – a kind of political rise from the dead. In the Chancellery, in any case, they have already started working on the story of a persecuted, unrelenting and successful chancellor who is innocent of any wrongdoing.

In the back of the BMW on Tuesday evening, as we approach Vienna city limits, Kurz himself says he sees no cause for concern – neither for himself nor for his party. "I am confident that in Upper Austria in September, we will win the ninth state parliamentary election in a row.”

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