Austria's Government Under New Challenge: Are New Elections Coming?

PeopleOther ♦ Published: October 20, 2022; 18:09 ♦ (Vindobona)

With his statements, Thomas Schmid, ex-Secretary General at the Ministry of Finance, has incriminated many former and current top politicians of the Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), some of them heavily. Although much was already relatively well known in the investigations by the Public Prosecutor's Office for Economic Affairs and Corruption (WKSta) triggered by the Ibiza affair, Schmid has provided a great deal of new material in the cases surrounding appointments to posts, tax and advertising deals in the Austrian government. In Austrian politics, a new crisis is now brewing for the ÖVP-Green coalition government.

As far as criminal law is concerned, several questions remain unanswered; as far as politics is concerned, the ÖVP-Green coalition is facing a crisis. / Picture: © Bundeskanzleramt (BKA) / Christoper Dunker

Whether Schmid's statements are true must be clarified. The former head of the state holding company ÖBAG wants leniency, as reported, which is why he must also be interested in telling everything. Whether he becomes a state witness depends on whether the public prosecutor's office sees his statements as making a significant contribution to the investigation.

However, his statements are causing a crisis which is not only a challenge for the Austrian government but could also plunge it into crisis. The people's trust in their government has been damaged after the scandals of recent years.

Political consultant Thomas Hofer agrees with many experts: "This is a massive stress test that the government is facing," he says in an interview with ORF. Of course, one has to wait and see what further developments look like, but what is now on the table is "further damage to the ÖVP's image," Hofer emphasizes according to ORF, referring both to Schmid's statements and the counterattacks by former ÖVP leader Sebastian Kurz. According to ORF, the latter had recorded a telephone conversation with Schmid after a house search in the course of the Beinschab/"Österreich" case last year and published it on Wednesday.

For the governing parties, on the other hand, the current development is already a "new test of endurance," as the ORF reported. The ÖVP and the Greens are now forced to consolidate to find a way to continue their government work. The governing parties have often shown disagreement on many issues. Schmid's statements not only cause new problems in the coalition government but also fuel the already existing tensions between the two parties.

Nehammer in conflict

For Austria's Chancellor Karl Nehammer, the crisis has already begun. As head of the government, he must of course ensure that the judiciary and the country function, as well as that cooperation between the two governing parties, the ÖVP and the Greens, is guaranteed. However, he is also the head of a party, the ÖVP, which is currently facing more than just serious accusations of corruption and has often had problems with the law in recent years.

After the publication of Schmid's interrogations, Nehammer demanded a "full clarification" by the judiciary. Nehammer did not see any current need for action in the party, because Schmid's accusations against Kurz and others "concern the past," Nehammer said in his terse statement.

At the same time, Nehammer makes it clear that he does not feel responsible for clarifying Thomas Schmid's "concrete and unspecific statements" - after all, he has to govern. "If these accusations are true, then this is not in order." The judiciary should conduct these investigations "carefully, I have to lead the country through a crisis," the chancellor elaborated.

In his statement, Nehammer also said that for his political work "transparency, clarity and clarification are the basis" and that accordingly, the "federal government has already initiated several reform steps - such as the new Political Parties Act or the submission of the Media Transparency Act."

But as previously explained, Nehammer is in another political crisis as party leader of the ÖVP. Nehammer has retreated to his role as chancellor, but he is still head of a party that is facing many serious accusations. As head of what is currently still the most important party in the country, more should be expected in such a crisis.

However, further investigation by the WKSta will show what bad government practices still lie dormant in the ÖVP. Karl Nehammer, who himself was the secretary general of the ÖVP at the time of the government under Sebastian Kurz, is thus also in the crosshairs of the economic and corruption prosecution office. Nehammer will probably have to deal with the accusations sooner or later. Not only to save his party but to be able to continue a regulated and peaceful government work with the Greens.

Functioning of the government or party politics

In the case of the coalition partners, the Greens, the situation is different in substance, but similar in strategy. The Greens want to stay in the government and try to differentiate between the ÖVP party and the current government.

"The Greens want to make it clear that there are differences in the government, but the work is working. There is virtually nothing to do with the ÖVP party," says political consultant Thomas Hofer, according to ORF. But, of course, credibility is also at stake for the Greens as an uncovering party, he said according to ORF. "If you make high moral demands, then voters will also measure you by them," Hofer says.

The Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) and the Greens are currently not interested in new elections as demanded by the opposition. Officially, they say they want to ensure stability in times of crisis.

As reported by ORF, according to Hofer, the main axes of the coalition are still functioning. On the one hand, Chancellor Nehammer and Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens) convey that they want to work together. On the other hand, club leaders Wöginger and Sigrid Maurer (Greens) form a "tandem" that gets along well. More important in terms of power politics, however, as ORF reports Thomas Hofer's statement, "The thing that keeps the coalition parties going is their shared reluctance or fear of early elections."

Opposition calls for new elections

The opposition parties are agitated and voices from the ranks of the Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ), the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and the NEOS are calling for new elections.

The smallest opposition party, the NEOS, strongly criticized the ÖVP and declared the ÖVP not only has a corruption problem, "it is one," said Neos leader Beate Meinl-Reisinger as reported by DerStandard, calling for new elections.

Above all, the calls for new elections are fueled by the fact that the governing parties do not exactly enjoy popularity. Above all, the ÖVP, which has been very powerful in recent years, has made itself unpopular through mismanagement (Ibiza, Corona pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine war and inflation).

The recent election in Tyrol, in which the ÖVP suffered enormous losses and the Greens were thrown out of the provincial government, and polls showing that the ÖVP and the Greens no longer have a majority, naturally play a major role in the background, as ORF reported. This must not be ignored. According to most election polls, such as Statista reports, the SPÖ is in the lead, followed by the FPÖ. If there were new elections now, the governing parties would probably lose them.

While the FPÖ itself is also trying to pull out of the affair with populism, this is mainly because the ÖVP itself reacted and the first was in the crosshairs of the WKSta.

The FPÖ demands new elections and therefore appeals to the SPÖ to jointly "request a special session of the National Council," said FPÖ federal party chairman Klubobmann Herbert Kickl, who says he will contact the SPÖ in this regard.

SPÖ wants to return to power

For the second most powerful and perhaps even historically most important party in Austria, the SPÖ, the main issue is to return to power. As an opposition party, the SPÖ performed relatively poorly and it was seen that this party feels only confident in the government. Therefore, SPÖ has above all questions for the government and demands clarification and transparency. In a tweet, the SPÖ addresses Nehammer and Kogler with "questions" that should be answered "immediately".

In the tweet, the SPÖ appeals above all to morale. Among other things, the 5 questions to Nehammer and Kogler can be summarized as follows: "Was Nehammer involved in any way in the accusations?", "Is Sobotka still sustainable?", "Is it green decency to keep doing the wall to the ÖVP?" The SPÖ also formulated questions to the government in the Austrian parliament.

Deputy SPÖ parliamentary club chairman Jörg Leichtfried reacted in a press conference today to the current developments surrounding the statements of former Secretary General Thomas Schmid. Leichtfried said, with record inflation and energy crisis, there are plenty of problems, challenges and crises that an Austrian federal government would have to take care of, "But the Chancellor is not sitting with his government team to tackle Austria's challenges, but with lawyers to discuss the ÖVP corruption quagmire. Austria deserves a different federal government!" SPÖ politicians want to banish the ÖVP to the opposition bench.

SPÖ politicians want to banish the ÖVP to the opposition bench. However, for the time being, there is no categorical rejection from SPÖ boss Rendi-Wagner in the event of new elections to a coalition with the ÖVP. She has so far emphasized that the voters have their say first, and then the SPÖ's performance will be seen, and they will see what coalition options are available. A coalition "with this ÖVP" is difficult to imagine.

Federal Chancellery of Austria



Green Party