From publication to government collapse it took just 26 hours. Now, the impact of a video filmed two years ago on a Spanish holiday island, exposing Austria’s far-right vice-chancellor Hienz-Christian Strache to accusations of political graft and Russian-sponsored subterfuge, promises to reverberate across Europe.
“We’re going to Ibiza, we’re going to have a party!” revellers sang on Mariahilferstrasse, in Vienna on Saturday evening, repurposing the 1999 Vengaboys eurodance hit to celebrate the disintegration of Austria’s ruling rightwing coalition.
Earlier that afternoon, 32-year-old chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced new elections would be held “as soon as possible”, calling time on the controversial pact he brokered with Mr Strache in 2017.
Just 17 months ago, the two forged an alliance under Mr Kurz’s chancellorship, in which his mainstream conservative People’s Party, Austria’s largest political party, co-opted the policies of the anti-immigrant Freedom Party to secure power and, it was hoped, tame the more extremist tendencies of Mr Strache’s movement.
Glossed by Mr Kurz’s youth and polish, it was a gamble celebrated by both moderates and hardliners on the right across Europe as a model: a blueprint to contain populist anger, or else a road map towards the reshaping of the EU’s liberal political agenda.
Now, with just days to go until critical EU parliamentary elections, the Austrian template is in tatters.
“This is the biggest political upheaval in Austria since 1955,” when the country was re-established as a sovereign state after the second world war, said Hans Burger, the Austrian public broadcaster ORF’s chief political correspondent.
Mr Kurz still enjoys strong approval ratings. Polling over the course of the past 17 months of the coalition government has shown a steady, if slight, erosion of support for the Freedom Party to the advantage of the Peoples’ Party.
In announcing the elections, chancellor Kurz was at pains to appear as statesmanlike as possible. “Enough is enough” he declared, widening his criticism beyond Mr Strache personally, and casting the Ibiza Affair as merely the latest in a string of political errors made the Freedom Party as a whole.
“Kurz’s aim will be to maintain the current course of the party policy and government program, also to stress and to promote the centrality of [his] party with [its] European and EU focus,” said Velina Tchakarova, head of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy. The general election, says Ms Tchakarova, may even see Mr Kurz seek to achieve an overall majority.
But there is still everything to play for. Mr Kurz, conscious of his own delicate entanglement in the power the Freedom Party now holds, has less latitude to act than might be expected, despite popular enthusiasm for his premiership. Political supporters in Vienna concede he has a fight on his hands.
In a post on Facebook on Sunday afternoon, the Freedom Party’s new leader, Norbert Hofer, announced he would not tolerate the ouster of fellow party member Herbert Kickl as Austria’s Minister of the Interior. The Freedom Party, he suggested, could even enter opposition until the election.
The country’s current opposition, the left and liberal parties, meanwhile, are keen to foreground Mr Kurz as the responsible adult in the room to blame. Beate Meinl-Reisinger, leader of the liberal Neos party, said the implosion of the coalition showed that Mr Kurz’s political strategy had failed.
“What I am really angry about is that a lot of people warned Sebastian Kurz he couldn’t govern with the FPO,” said Beate Meinl-Reisinger, leader of the liberal Neos party. “This is failure on his part. It was a very deliberate decision to go with the FPO. It is not true he had no other options.”
The outcome of the European elections this coming week may set a decisive stamp on the outcome of events over the coming months.
Yet, so late in the day, there is little clarity what may happen. Before the scandal broke, the most recent national polling suggested 30 per cent of Austrians were still undecided how they would cast their ballots.
In trying to woo that catchment, it is clear is that the Freedom Party has been dealt a severe blow. To boot, turnout for European elections in the country is usually only about half of that seen in Austrian national elections. The Freedom Party has made persuading apathetic and unpolitically-engaged voters not to stay at home a key plank of its campaigning.
For such voters, motivated as much by the desire to elect outsiders to shake up a metropolitan political system they perceive as corrupt and unethical, Mr Strache’s conduct may prove critical. Some pollsters predict the Freedom Party’s share of the vote may even dip below the psychologically important 20 per cent level.
“The Freedom party worked a lot and for many years to be fit for government,” said Thomas Hofer, a political analyst and consultant in Vienna. “This work has been destroyed completely.”
“The Freedom party always had in its DNA that ‘we are against corruption, we are against those on the top getting the big bucks’ but what Mr Strache did in a very stupid manner is proof of the contrary,” he said.
Party official at centre of far-right web
Johann Gudenus, the other Freedom Party official seen in the video at the heart of the scandal, has cultivated a web of contacts with other European nativist parties.
Heinz-Christian Strache was his pledge father in their Austrian fraternity Vandalia, where Mr Gudenus went by the name “Wotan”, after the Germanic god Odin in Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen.
The 42 year old Mr Gudenus, whose father John was convicted in 2006 for denying and diminishing the crimes of the Holocaust, became Vienna’s youngest county council member in 1998 at the age of 19. During his law studies in Vienna, Mr Gudenus studied in Moscow.
As a leader of a youth branch of the Freedom party, Mr Gudenus called for a “condom tax” to increase the country’s birth rate and encouraged young people to lay memorial wreaths on the tomb of a Nazi aviator. In 2010, he campaigned for the Hungarian far-right party Jobbik. He has also cultivated ties to Serbian nationalists like Bosnian Serb Milorad Dodik. He served as deputy mayor of Vienna, after which he became the leader of the FPO’s faction in the Austrian parliament, until his resignation on Saturday.