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VIENNA – Illusion, according to Freud, is not an illness but rather part of a healing process. The homeland of the father of psychoanalysis is doing its best to prove him wrong.
Since the sudden fall from grace of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz – the political prodigy turned persona non grata – Austria has found itself in a collective daze amid a lingering scandal, political upheaval and toxic debates over the pandemic and the country’s not-so-distant past.
Yet instead of cleaning up the system with new elections, the country seems determined to continue as if all is well.
About 60 percent of the public don’t think Austria’s democracy is working properly and 90 percent say the political system is corrupt, according to a detailed study released last month.
Once a bulwark of stability, the ruling Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has struggled to maintain its legitimacy amid growing mistrust of the government. In just six weeks last fall, the center-right ÖVP, which governs in coalition with the Greens, burned two chancellors – Kurz and Alexander Schallenberg (who recently resumed their post as Minister of foreign).
After less than a month in the hot seat, the new Chancellor, Karl Nehammer, is already agitated. Nehammer, a former army officer who served as home secretary in Kurz’s cabinet, raised his eyebrows over the holidays saying his party “has no problem with corruption”.
Nehammer also caused a sensation with his choice of successor to the Home Office, Gerhard Karner, mayor of a small town in the state of Lower Austria. Karner spread anti-Semitic tropes during a regional election campaign in 2008, accusing the opposition of relying on “gentlemen from America and Israel” to “poison the atmosphere”. (After his recent appointment, Karner apologized for the comments, using the odd excuse he made to them 14 years ago when he was 40.)
Karner is also an avowed admirer of Engelbert Dollfuß, who stifled Austrian democracy in 1933 and introduced a fascist dictatorship based on the Italian model of Benito Mussolini. Dollfuß, whose Christian Social Party was the forerunner of the postwar ÖVP, was killed by the Nazis in a failed coup attempt in 1934 and has been revered by some Austrian conservatives ever since.
Karner has an even deeper connection to Dollfuß, however. His hometown of Texingtal is Dollfuß’s birthplace. As mayor, Karner oversaw 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 “the great chancellor and renovator of Austria”.
Karner’s other claim to fame is that he worked as a close aide to former Home Secretary Ernst Strasser. While serving as an MEP, Strasser was caught on camera by The Sunday Times agreeing to change the law in exchange for a bribe from so-called lobbyists. He was sentenced to three years in prison in 2014. Beyond this association, we do not know at all what would qualify Karner, a business graduate, to supervise the Austrian police and the entire internal security apparatus. .
Controversy over concerts
While Karner has tried 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 started.
Austrian Chancellors traditionally attend the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Year’s concert on January 1. Broadcast around the world, the event, which takes months to prepare, counts as the cultural highlight of the Austrian calendar and is attended by the country’s political elite and an assortment of other luminaries from the president to the bottom. .
Nehammer apologized of this year’s concert, saying “the pandemic demands sacrifices from all of us, including me.”
The Chancellor still had COVID-19. On Friday, he announced that he had contracted the virus from one of his bodyguards. The next day, however, a photo emerged showing Nehammer sitting in a crowded ski lodge in the New Year, which raised questions both about how he got COVID-19 and his explanation for not not having attended the concert.
His spokesperson 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 that of Austria, the proven remedy for political rot is an early election.
In 2019, new elections were called just hours after a video was released showing then-vice-chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache plotting to sell influence. The colorful footage, in which Strache offered to organize the sale of Austria’s largest tabloid and direct lucrative state contracts to a woman he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, was secretly filmed in 2017 by a private detective during a drunken evening. in Ibiza several months before Strache took office.
As damning as Strache’s character gang is, authorities have discovered no evidence that he implemented any of the plans he proposed that evening. But it didn’t matter.
“Enough is enough,” then Chancellor Kurz said as he ended his coalition with Strache’s far-right Freedom Party after the video was released. Kurz denounced “the attitude of his partner towards the abuse of power, towards taxpayers’ money, towards the media in this country”.
Looking back, Kurz’s comments seem to reflect what Freud called “projection.”
In the scandal that toppled Kurz’s chancellery, prosecutors said they uncovered evidence that he had carried out a scheme to use public funds to pay for manipulated polls and bribe journalists in exchange for contemptuous coverage. Kurz and his associates deny any foul play.
Despite everything, the SMS exchanges revealed by the investigators between Kurz, his entourage, the journalists and the pollsters paint a devastating picture of the Austrian political and media complex.
“We’ve never gone this far before,” said Thomas Schmid, a confidant of Kurz at the center of the case, in a conversation, referring to the alleged manipulation of the media. “Get what you pay for. I love it.”
Whatever the final decision of the courts, the damage done to Austrian democracy is no less serious than that caused by the Ibiza case.
It’s arguably worse: While Strache never acted on his bragging, there is no doubt that Kurz waged a well-planned campaign of dirty tricks to undermine his political rivals. The only real question is whether it was illegal.
Austria’s future is no longer Kurz’s business. After weeks of resistance, he gave in and relinquished his leadership of the ÖVP after stepping down as chancellor. He recently announced that he would work as an advisor to Peter Thiel, the German-born billionaire in Silicon Valley.
And yet the system put in place by Kurz, his party and his hand-picked ministers (including his two successors) remains firmly in place. The ÖVP, which won 38% of the vote in 2019, now obtains around 25% in the polls, behind the Social Democrats.
A new election is the last thing the party wants.
But the biggest obstacle to a new election is the Green Party, the junior partner of the ÖVP. While the fight against corruption is at the heart of the party’s platform, the Greens leadership seems more concerned about its election prospects.
Despite their concerns about political corruption (or perhaps because of it), Austrians are divided over whether to hold early elections. In a poll released in December, 47 percent of those polled said the government should stay in place, while 41 percent called for an immediate election and 12 percent were unsure.
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, who has played a pivotal role in preventing the state from collapsing amid the flood of scandals, has done his best in recent weeks to keep up appearances. In an effort to reassure the public, he said in the New Year that “Austria continues to enjoy a good reputation” in the world.
Thanks to the pandemic, most Austrians will not soon have the opportunity to test this claim. Those who do will discover how quickly the illusion can evolve into another condition that Freud chartered: depression.