Austrian voters delivered a heavy electoral blow to the Austrian far right Freedom Party (FPÖ) this weekend. According to the final result, the FPÖ ’s vote share dropped almost ten percentage points since elections last year. The FPÖ’s poor showing at the polls may be attributed to the fact that the party was mired in multiple scandals, which included party leadership solicitating favors and malign interference from Russia, the fallout of which brought down the Conservative Party-FPÖ coalition government, triggering new elections. Corruption of any sort, but particularly the type that courts foreign actors’ assistance in polluting the integrity of domestic politics, ought to have consequences. The Austrian election demonstrated how that can happen, and hopefully gives pause to politicians in democracies seeking similar ill-gotten gains.
In May 2019, a covertly filmed video of then-leader of the FPÖ Heinz-Christian Strache showed him in Ibiza, Spain trading political favors for the support of a woman he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch. During the conversation, Strache was recorded offering the woman public contracts in exchange for her assistance. He further discussed how that assistance could come in the form of a newspaper purchase, suggesting that the oligarch buy a large stake in the Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s largest tabloid, and re-orient its coverage to be more friendly to the FPÖ.
As it turned out, the video was the result of a sting operation. Nevertheless, it showed that the then-Vice-Chancellor of an EU member state was prepared to allow, and in fact was actively courting, interference in his country’s democratic system by an authoritarian regime in exchange for its help swaying voters. His actions seemed particularly concerning in the light of the Russian government’s sustained campaign of interference throughout the transatlantic space.
The release of the “Ibiza-gate” video led to the collapse of the governing coalition between the FPÖ and the Conservative Party. The FPÖ subsequently lost support in the May 2019 European Parliament elections. This weekend, the party suffered another punishing setback on the national stage.
Ibiza-gate clearly damaged the Freedom Party; after all, its government coalition could not survive the fallout. When another party-financing scandal hit the FPÖ just days before the ballot, the party’s support fell to its lowest level in years. The narrative around the new scandal, which saw Heinz-Christian Strache accused of embezzling party funds, amplified the allegations of corruption that began with the Ibiza scandal and contributed to the party’s poor electoral showing.
How much did Ibiza-gate shift popular opinion on its own? Ten days before the election, the FPÖ was polling at twenty percent, having lost only two percent of support in the polls after the original scandal. After the more recent embezzlement allegations became public, support for the party plummeted further. A recent survey found that Ibiza-gate mattered most to supporters of the Conservative Party (ÖVP), whose campaign shared striking similarities to the FPÖ’s, suggesting that many of its voters were choosing between the ÖVP and FPÖ. While 71% of Austrian voters across the political spectrum responded that their vote was not affected by the scandal, the survey also found that only 62% of voters affiliated with the Conservative Party were not affected. This is noteworthy because the FPӦ lost many of its former voters to the Conservatives (258,000). Nearly as many FPӦ voters simply did not vote in this election (235,000).
In Austria, Strache courting foreign interference may not have changed the political landscape on its own. But the greater scrutiny it put on the FPÖ’s finances and other corrupt dealings led swing voters to reconsider their support of the party. It also has put pressure on the winning Conservative Party, whose leader, Sebastian Kurz, resolutely distanced himself the FPÖ’s shady dealings, to build a coalition with parties other than the FPÖ this time around.
Austria should continue to apply critical scrutiny on finances and malign influence in its political system. The national election showed that voters care about corruption, regardless of whether they involve foreign or domestic actors. Achieving greater transparency of political financing and identifying the systemic effects of dirty money will have the benefit of reducing the risk of foreign interference as well build resilience against domestic corruption. These are lessons that not only Austria but all democracies should learn from the Ibiza-gate scandal.