Press play to listen to this article
VIENNA – Delusion, argued Freud, is not an illness but part of a healing process. The homeland of the father of psychoanalysis is doing its best to prove him wrong.
Since the sudden ouster of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz – the political prodigy-turned-persona non grata – Austria has found itself in a collective daze amid ongoing scandals, political upheaval and toxic debates about the pandemic and the country’s not-so-distant past.
But instead of cleaning up the system with new elections, the country seems determined to carry on as if everything is fine.
It is not.
Around 60 percent of the public consider Austrian democracy to be non-functional and 90 percent say the political system is corrupt, including a detailed study released last month.
Once a bulwark of stability, the ruling Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) is struggling to maintain its legitimacy amid growing mistrust of the government. In just six weeks last autumn, the centre-right ÖVP, which ruled with the Greens, burned down two chancellors – Kurz and Alexander Schallenberg (who recently returned to his post as foreign minister).
After less than a month in the hot seat, the new Chancellor Karl Nehammer is already struggling. Nehammer, a former army officer who served as interior minister in Kurz’s cabinet, raised eyebrows over the holiday assert that his party “has no corruption problem”.
Nehammer also caused a stir with the election of his successor in the Ministry of the Interior, Gerhard Karner, a mayor of a small town in Lower Austria. Karner spread anti-Semitic tropes accused the opposition of relying on “gentlemen from America and Israel” to “poison the atmosphere” during a 2008 regional election campaign. (Following his recent appointment, Karner apologized for the comments with the odd excuse that he made them 14 years ago at the tender age of 40.)
Karner is also a self-confessed admirer of Engelbert Dollfuss, who wiped out Austrian democracy in 1933 and introduced a fascist dictatorship based on the Italian model of Benito Mussolini. Dollfuss, whose Christian Social Party was the post-war forerunner of the ÖVP, was killed by the Nazis in a failed coup attempt in 1934 and has been revered by some Austrian conservatives ever since.
However, Karner has an even deeper connection to Dollfuss. His hometown Texingtal is Dollfuss’ birthplace. As mayor, Karner ran a museum housed in the small house where Dollfuss was born. A plaque at the entrance describes the fascist dictator, who banned the opposition and had political opponents executed, as “Austria’s great chancellor and innovator”.
Karner’s other claim to fame is that he worked as a close associate of former Interior Minister Ernst Strasser. Strasser was caught on video by the police while he was an MEP Sunday times Approval to change the law against bribes from alleged lobbyists. In 2014 he was sentenced to three years in prison. Beyond this connection, it is not at all clear what would enable the business graduate to monitor Austria’s police and the entire state security service.
While Karner has been trying to convince the world that he is not an anti-Semite (or a fascist sympathizer), Nehammer has been busy putting out the other fires he has set.
Austrian Federal Chancellors traditionally take part in the New Year’s Concert the Vienna Philharmonic on January 1st. The event, which is broadcast worldwide and has been prepared for months, is considered the cultural highlight of the Austrian calendar and is attended by the country’s political elite and various other luminaries from the Federal President onwards.
Nehammer he apologized from this year’s concert and said that “the pandemic is taking casualties from all of us, myself included”.
The chancellor got COVID-19 anyway. On Friday he has announced He had contracted the virus from one of his bodyguards. However, a photo emerged the following day of Nehammer sitting in a crowded ski lodge over New Year’s, raising questions about how he got COVID-19 and his explanation for not attending the concert.
His spokesman insists the chancellor contracted the virus from a member of his security service, but has provided no scientific evidence to support this claim.
In most Western democracies – including Austria’s – early elections are the tried and tested antidote to political rot.
New elections were called back in 2019, just hours after a video was released showing the country’s then-vice chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, planning to sell influence. The colorful footage, in which Strache offered to manipulate the sales of Austria’s biggest tabloid and direct lucrative state contracts to a woman he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, was secretly shot in Ibiza in 2017 by a private detective during a booze-fueled evening some Months before Strache took office.
As damning as the bond of Strache’s character was, authorities uncovered no evidence that he went through with any of the plans he proposed that night. But that didn’t matter.
“Enough is enough,” declared the then Chancellor Kurz when he pulled the plug after the publication of the video of his coalition with Strache’s far-right Freedom Party. Kurz criticized his partner’s “attitude towards abuse of power, dealing with taxpayers’ money, towards the media in this country”.
In retrospect, Kurz’s comments seem to reflect what Freud called ‘projection’.
In the scandal that toppled Kurz’s chancellorship, prosecutors said they uncovered evidence he spearheaded a scheme that used public money to pay for rigged polls and bribe journalists in return for flattering reporting . Kurz and his employees deny any criminal misconduct.
Nevertheless, the SMS exchange uncovered by investigators between Kurz, his inner circle, journalists and pollsters paints a devastating picture of Austria’s political and media complex.
“We’ve never gone that far,” said Thomas Schmid, a confidant of Kurz at the center of the affair, in a chat with a view to the alleged media manipulation. “You get what you pay for. I love it.”
No matter how the courts ultimately decide, the damage to Austrian democracy is no less than that caused by the Ibiza affair.
It’s arguably worse: while Strache never responded to his boast, there’s no doubt that Kurz waged a well-planned dirty-tricks campaign to undermine his political rivals. The only real question is whether it was illegal.
The future of Austria is no longer about Kurz. After weeks of resistance, he gave in and gave up the leadership of the ÖVP after his resignation as Chancellor. He recently announced he would be working as an advisor to Peter Thiel, the German-born Silicon Valley billionaire.
And yet the system Kurz instituted, his party, and his hand-picked ministers (including his two successors) remain firmly in place. The ÖVP, which received 38 percent of the votes in 2019, is now in second place behind the Social Democrats in polls with around 25 percent.
The last thing the party wants is new elections.
But the biggest obstacle to a new election are the Greens, the junior partner of the ÖVP. Although the fight against corruption is at the heart of the party’s platform, the Greens’ leadership seems more concerned about their prospects at the ballot box.
Despite their concerns about political corruption (or perhaps as a result of it), Austrians are divided on whether to call snap elections. In one opinion poll 47 percent of respondents released in December said the government should remain in office, while 41 percent supported immediate elections and 12 percent were unsure.
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, who was instrumental in preventing the state from collapsing in the spate of scandals, has done his best to keep up appearances in recent weeks. To reassure the public, he said said about the turn of the year that “Austria continues to enjoy a good reputation” in the world.
Thanks to the pandemic, most Austrians will not have the opportunity to verify this claim in the foreseeable future. Those who do will discover how quickly delusions can evolve into another condition identified by Freud – depression.