After 17 months in office, the chancellor's former coalition partners, as well as the opposition, no longer have confidence in him. The vote was an unnecessary piece of political drama, Norbert Mappes-Niediek writes.
Monday's dramatic vote of no confidence, which brought down Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his government, was superfluous. New elections are already slated for September. And the mood of the country's voters was crystal clear during Sunday's European Parliament elections. The young chancellor's "black and blue project" (the colors of the two coalition parties) was popular, and it remains so with many Austrians. Moreover, an alternative is nowhere in sight. Nothing suggests that Monday's no-confidence vote will change much about that.
Still, in the end, there was a lot of drama surrounding the vote. The opposition center-left Social Democratic Party of Austria (SPÖ) and Kurz's former coalition partners, the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) — recently thrown out of government — spent days debating their course of action. "Can this chancellor be trusted?" they asked. When speaking of trust, they were not simply ruminating over the constitutional term that allows a chancellor to be removed from office. Rather, recent political statements on the issue of trust have had something entirely personal about them.
The Social Democrats were truly disgusted that Kurz would have the audacity to immediately campaign for reelection without acknowledging any wrongdoing. The FPÖ simply didn't understand all of the attention given to the so-called Ibiza video, which showed FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache promising government contracts to a dubious "Russian" woman and greedily scheming about taking over Austrian media outlets. The FPÖ and its voters think that is how politics works, and that it was mean and cowardly to hold Kurz accountable for something they imagine everybody does anyhow. After 30 years of right-wing populism, cynicism can shamelessly masquerade as honesty.
An infuriating opponent
Kurz's blank facial expression during the debate over his removal from office was reminiscent of something from a wax museum. The emotions that he stirs in others are all foreign to him, and they only become more turbulent the colder he remains: The 32-year-old Kurz, always measured in his words and impeccable in his manners, drives his opponents mad. The culture of compromise, largely thought to be a typically Austrian characteristic, is also foreign to him. When he speaks in public, Kurz regularly presents statements on issues discussed with his closest advisers as if they were carved in stone. The fact that he and his — visibly irate — coalition partners have now been removed from power didn't even cause him to break a sweat, and his fans love him for that composure.
Kurz could not care less how his opponents vote. And, now that he has been removed from office, he will sell himself as a martyr. Had he remained until the election, it would have been his majestic unassailability that would have carried him to an equally impressive victory. He shares not a single political aim with the opposition.
Still, the SPÖ spent a great deal of energy maneuvering ahead of Monday's vote. There was much agitation from those within the party — such as deputy party chairman Hans Peter Doskozil — who have no problem working with the far-right FPÖ. Doskozil has been working with the FPÖ in the state of Burgenland and has no problem beating the federal government at its own nationalist game on the far right of the political spectrum. It was SPÖ figures seeking to make a clear statement against those on the right — such as inexperienced party chairwoman Pamela Rendi-Wagner — who were most skeptical about the vote of no confidence. Yet, their odds of success on that front remain anything but clear. Austria's political parties cannot be neatly ordered from left to right across the political spectrum — as is the case in Germany. One could say the three main parties are more like the star on a Mercedes-Benz — their three domains are linked by three intersections of the same length.
The FPÖ did a lot of maneuvering as well. For instance, neither Herbert Kickl, who was fired as interior minister last week, nor Harald Vilimsky, the FPÖ's top European Parliament candidate, wanted to enter a coalition with Kurz and his conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) in the first place. The two men are convinced that one day they will see an FPÖ chancellor in Austria. Hardliners within the party rightly fear that such a feat will be impossible if the FPÖ is only a junior coalition partner. Others, such a Norbert Hofer, the designated successor of disgraced party leader Heinz-Christian Strache, would actually like to take another stab at a coalition with the ÖVP after the September election. A "Black and Blue 2" cabinet is by no means an improbable outcome. Kurz himself has refused to rule out the option. It is also likely that the criticism he faced from within the ÖVP for his hard right political course over the past several months will die down after Sunday's far-right election victory.
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Kurz has a very clear agenda: No to immigrants, no to Brussels, no to redistributing wealth to finance welfare programs. His opponents, however, can only agree on one thing: the chancellor is undeserving of the support he gets from his fans. Yet, unless the Ibiza affair ultimately backfires there is no way it can stave off the rightward turn the country is currently experiencing. Sex, lies and video are not reliable tools for bringing about political change — that seems to be the lesson from Vienna.