Ibiza Affair Committee Concludes in National Council: How Corrupt are Austrian Politicians?

More+More+ ♦ Published: September 23, 2021; 14:17 ♦ (Vindobona)

How corruptible is Austrian politics? This question was explored by the deputies in the National Council session when discussing the recently published final report of the Ibiza-Affair Investigation Committee. Although the report was unanimously acknowledged, the parties were far apart in their conclusions.

Ibiza Affair: Parties discuss controversial final report in Austrian National Council. (Picture: Inaugural Session of the Austrian National Council, Oct. 2019.) / Picture: © Parlamentsdirektion / Johannes Zinner

The Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) and the NEOS, on whose initiative the committee on "alleged venality of the black-blue government", which was launched in 2020, had been set up, found that the investigations had been terminated prematurely. In particular, the connections to the ÖVP in state institutions would have to be examined more closely in order to deal with cases of possible abuse of power. The FPÖ also sees the investigation work as confirming that the Turkish People's Party has a network in the ministries that wants to seize power in the state; the investigation work is therefore by no means over. 

For the ÖVP, on the other hand, the committee has removed the basis for allegations of corruption against the first government under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. Rather, it was now obvious how much the system of the U-committee needed to be reformed in order to protect its work from abuse. The Greens saw the investigative committee as a successful political self-cleansing process. The committee had produced numerous findings. Unlike the associated report, however, these findings would not be shelved, the deputies emphasized.

Before the start of the debate, Doris Bures, the presiding Second Speaker of the National Council, formally declared the committee of inquiry closed. In eleven chapters, the debated report outlines the investigations of the committee, which was set up in response to the Ibiza video with Heinz-Christian Strache that became public in 2019. The meeting between the then FPÖ chairman and an alleged Russian oligarch's daughter, which was secretly filmed on the Spanish vacation island Ibiza before the 2017 National Council elections, may have been a trap, but it raised the questions dealt with in the committee of inquiry: Had corruption, embezzlement and abuse of office occurred under the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition formed after the 2017 parliamentary elections?

ÖVP sees allegations invalidated

From the point of view of the ÖVP in the committee of inquiry, the final report of the trial judge has refuted the allegations. "This Ibiza investigation committee was unfortunately an insinuation committee," Andreas Hanger said, referring to investigations surrounding alleged party donations via ÖVP-affiliated associations. There had never been any cases of law-buying. However, the scandalization of the investigated cases often violated the privacy of the persons named, Hanger stated, who therefore spoke out in favor of a change in the committee procedure. For example, the subject of the investigation must be more clearly defined and the premature disclosure of sensitive documents to the media must be prevented in the future. This would strengthen the investigative committee as an important control instrument and make it less susceptible to abuse.

SPÖ and FPÖ denounce "Turkish parallel society

On behalf of the SPÖ, Kai Jan Krainer said in the plenum that the ÖVP was apparently living in an aloof "parallel society" that did not want to recognize the facts. The investigation committee demanded by the SPÖ and NEOS had shown that the "Kurz-Strache government" could be bought. Donation payments in exchange for political favors and incidents of post cheating had come to light. The main protagonists in the Ibiza video, Heinz-Christian Strache and his former party colleague Johann Gudenus, are no longer in politics, but the "Kurz system" still exists, Krainer accused Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his entourage of attempts to gain control in state institutions such as the Ministry of Finance through their own network away from the leadership level: "This shows power and abuse of power by this group," which does not allow any criticism.

Similar to Krainer, FPÖ member Christian Hafenecker also accused the ÖVP of continually obstructing the work of the committee. The People's Party had been very interested in "covering up" facts in the committee, Hafenecker said indignantly, and considered this an "attack on parliamentarianism". Among other things he reminded of the from its view highly questionable procedures approximately around the occupation of the executive committee Thomas Schmid in the Austrian holding corporation (ÖBAG), in order to stress, a follow-up committee is absolutely necessary. In addition, the Greens and their role in the Vienna Heumarktprojekt should be examined more closely, Hafenecker found.

The findings of the committee represent an important basis, expressed Nina Tomaselli (Greens), which could also be used for another committee of inquiry. Whether and when there will be a next committee of inquiry, however, has not yet been decided, despite widespread criticism.

It is a concern of the ÖVP to conduct politics at a high level in order to maintain the trust of the population. Therefore Ernst Gödl (ÖVP) recommended the other parties to use the "pause for reflection" until the next investigation committee and to refrain from insinuations, scandalizations and personal attacks in the future.

Demand for live transmission of the questioning in the investigation committee

Maria Holzleitner (SPÖ) located a "mocking rejection towards the parliament" from Chancellor Kurz. The Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) was trying to talk down the instrument of the investigative committee, she emphasized, and wanted to bring "light into the darkness" by means of live transmissions of the questioning in the investigative committee. A motion for a resolution to this effect was rejected, as was a motion to save the files available to the investigative committee from shredding. The SPÖ, FPÖ and NEOS argue that since the end of the Ibiza Investigation Committee would also mean the end of the legal basis entitling the National Council to dispose of the files presented, the 2.7 million pages of files would be threatened with destruction. They demand their safekeeping, especially since the opposition parties want to continue the investigation committee.

NEOS: Investigations can be kept small or even accelerated

While the ÖVP always emphasized that there was no venality, the SPÖ and NESO accused the government at the time of just that. The committee of inquiry should hold politics accountable, emphasized Stephanie Krisper (NEOS). Two years ago, together with MP Krainer, the MP had initiated the request for the establishment of the U-committee, and today accused the ÖVP of preventing, delaying and dragging out the process. In the investigation committee she had experienced many obstructions by ÖVP respondents. For example, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's extravagant answers to questions from his own party, which meant that there was no question time left for the other parties. Krisper stressed that the ÖVP had done everything in its power to torpedo investigations against its own party in exchange for speeding up investigations in other areas. She went on to call for reforms such as measures against post-hunting and anti-corruption measures.

More transparency in contacts between politics and business

Among the committee's findings from its investigations is the report's recommendation to separate government administration and legislation from the interests of private-sector companies and to limit official contacts in this context to what is necessary. In addition, meetings, discussions and agreements between political representatives and company executives should be recorded in the files. With regard to the Casinos Austria complex in particular, the report states that the Ministry of Finance should restrict its activities in the field of gaming to legal matters, player protection and the granting of licenses. Tenders for concessions and licenses, the administration of shares and the rights arising from the federal government's shareholdings should, as far as possible, be handled by an independent body to be set up.

In order to curb the evasion of the obligation to report party donations, associations in which persons close to a party are active or which are ideologically close to a party should in principle be recorded as "party-affiliated organizations," the report states with regard to donations that are not brought to the attention of the Court of Audit.

Austrian Parliament