There have been numerous committees of inquiry into allegations of corruption in Austria. Acquisitions, construction projects or alleged legal purchases have been investigated many times in the history of the Second Republic. And the “presumed purchasability” of an entire federal government was already a separate subject of investigation in the Ibiza-U-Committee.
The new U-Committee is a novelty. He should deal exclusively with corruption allegations against one party: the ÖVP. The investigation is in the starting blocks. Today, Wednesday, it is the turn of the National Council’s committee of rules of procedure: It decides on the opposition’s motion to set up the “ÖVP-Corruption-U-Committee”.
The approval is to be expected. The Greens have announced that they will accept the subject of the investigation; a boycott of the ÖVP would not have a majority. If there is no surprise, it all happens in quick succession: After the application has been approved, the committee in the National Council must be appointed within four weeks. After the first deliveries of files, the first surveys could start as early as January.
In the months that followed, numerous topics were dealt with, from the advertising affair to possible influencing of investigations to Wirecard. The focus will always be on the role of the ÖVP. The multitude of topics and the focus on one party stem from the fact that the opposition does not only accuse representatives of the People’s Party for individual misconduct. Rather, it brings the ÖVP under ex-Federal Chancellor and Chairman Sebastian Kurz closer to systematic corruption.
Statements by opposition politicians all go in this direction, even if the rhetoric differs among the parliamentary groups. The SPÖ and Neos speak of the “Kurz system”, which the ex-chancellor established during his tenure.
National Council member Stephanie Krisper (Neos) also complains about a “Pilnacek system” – that is, the targeted and controlled exertion of influence on investigations by the People’s Party and the top judicial official Christian Pilnacek, who is allegedly close to her. Member of the National Council Jan Krainer (SPÖ), in turn, locates that “mafia-like structures” have spread in individual ministries in Austria.
The Freedom Party, on the other hand, adopted the diction of the “deep state” that had become popular with Republicans in the 2016 US election campaign. This describes an all-encompassing secret network that exercises true power in the state apart from democratic control. National Council member Christian Hafenecker (FPÖ) sees such a network at the People’s Party. The ÖVP has “built a deep state” and is using it for itself.
No relaxation in sight
The ÖVP rejects this. In the Ibiza-U-Committee their representatives complained about “scandals”. At the same time, they also criticized an alleged network that works against the ÖVP: the Economic and Corruption Public Prosecutor’s Office (WKStA). The authority is controlled by red prosecutors and consists of “left cells” who hunt down the ÖVP for political reasons.
This strategy and sharp rhetoric are likely to be maintained. The ÖVP is currently counting on acquittals and suspensions in proceedings in which the WKStA is involved as a juicy defeat for the authority. It is intended to suggest that the allegations against Kurz and other ÖVP politicians could not be true either. Ministers of the People’s Party moved out last week to emphasize the high value of the presumption of innocence and the loss of image in the case of false suspicions after the investigation against ex-finance minister Hartwig Löger was closed.
The opposition, on the other hand, wants to underpin its accusation of the “short system” and “deep state” with the multitude of investigation topics in the U-Committee. As many connections as possible of the ÖVP in alleged corruption affairs should be drawn or uncovered.
In some cases, the parties have different priorities here. Above all, the Neos want to influence criminal investigations and prove the existence of an ÖVP network in the judiciary. The FPÖ, on the other hand, has the Interior Ministry in its sights. There is a turquoise network that is “unparalleled”, said Hafenecker. Above all, he wants to point out possible involvement of the Ministry of the Interior in the Wirecard affair.
In addition to these topics, the advertising affair, alleged post chats or influence on state-affiliated companies by the ÖVP are also examined. This wide range is also made possible by the most recent case law of the Constitutional Court, which recently broadly interpreted the opposition’s leeway with regard to the subject of investigation and the request for documents.
Pressure on Kurz should be maintained
The common goal of the opposition is to prevent chairman Kurz from returning to the Chancellery by putting pressure on the ÖVP. As the “Presse” reported on the weekend, the ex-Chancellor is planning a tour of the federal states to get officials and governors, some of whom have already expressed criticism of him, to his side. Kurz will need their support in order to become Chancellor again. If he is still under suspicion of corruption or if new chats or allegations come to light, the support for the chairman in the countries will wane and short-critical voices will gain momentum.
The Greens are between the fronts in this duel. In the Ibiza-U-Committee they placed little value on turquoise sensitivities, although they voted against the extension of the committee out of coalition reasons. After they continued the coalition at Kurz ?? If they left, they have a more difficult position in the ÖVP. Overly harsh rhetoric by the Greens and a concession towards the opposition in the new U-Committee could cause further anger among the ÖVP. A too lax approach and cooperation with the ÖVP, in turn, damage the reputation of the green base.