On Sunday, October 10, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz stepped down just days after news broke that he and his administration had used public funds to produce fake polls and pay journalists for favorable news coverage. This is the first major setback in the astonishing career of the young politician — Kurz is still just 35! — who became Austria’s foreign minister eight years ago, while still in his 20s. As a rising star of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), Kurz was able to topple his predecessor and remodel the party in his image, even changing the color from black to turquoise. (Colors are a very big deal in German and Austrian party politics.) Kurz won the following elections and formed a government with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). This coalition collapsed when FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache was caught on camera offering state contracts to a presumed Russian oligarch in exchange for campaign donations. Kurz went on to win the next elections as well, and returned to the Chancellory in an alliance with the Green Party (a turquoise-green coalition).
Kurz once broke with his far-right ally Strache over brazen corruption, but now his own dirty deals have come to light. On Saturday, police searched the chancellery and the ÖVP headquarters, and an enormous tranche of text messages from the Kurzian inner circle have become public. Kurz’s rise was not just based on careful messaging and good looks: his team gave public money to tabloid newspapers in order to publish manipulated opinion polls that would make Kurz appear more popular than he actually was.
Kurz’s brand is centered on hostility to immigrants. He took the FPÖ’s fanatically racist program and put it into the slightly more respectable packaging of the traditional ÖVP. The connection between what could be called “right-wing populism” and unabashed self-enrichment is striking — it invites comparison with a certain U.S. politician whose demagoguery against “migrant caravans” often seemed primarily intended to fill his personal coffers. One wonders: Are Kurz, Trump, and similar politicians even particularly interested in immigration? Or is this just a convenient topic to keep petty-bourgeois sectors distracted while they’re being robbed blind?
There is a certain irony here: all bourgeois politicians are corrupt — bourgeois democracy cannot function without a complex system to make the “representatives of the people” serve the interests of capital. In this system, it is the Far Right that makes the most political hay out of accusing their opponents of corruption — Kurz had promised to drain the many swamps of Austrian politics. But the Far Right in office tends to be even more corrupt than its predecessors.
Despite his resignation, Kurz is not gone. He is now the leader of the ÖVP parliamentary group, while his close confident Alexander Schallenberg, the former foreign minister, has taken over the chancellery. Schallenberg has already said he will work closely with Kurz, who many believe will remain as “shadow chancellor:”
Noteworthy is the role of the Green Party of Austria, which has been governing with Kurz for two years. A party that is supposedly committed to liberal values went along with a sharpening of Austria’s already racist policies.Occasionally Green ministers would post anti-racist comments on Twitter as if someone else were in government.
Even days after Kurz’s corruption scandal was made public, the Greens refused to remove their support. The Green Party likes to talk about environmentalism, but in practice it seems they are only interested in government jobs and the associated perks. Now the Greens have voted Kurz’s replacement into office — with the same racist policies, and only slightly less exposure to corrupt deals. Even Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, who was personally responsible for illegal payments of tens of millions of euros to the tabloids, survived a vote of no-confidence thanks to the Greens. As we have written elsewhere, Green Parties can never be a vehicle for socialists — but the Austrian example shows they do not even stand up for basic liberal values.
Kurz might no longer be chancellor, but the corrupt system behind him remains. It might be unusual to see thousands of text messages showing how politicians collude with the owners of big newspapers. But this is going on every day in every country. Newspapers are never just concerned with objective truth: they are capitalist companies, owned by individual bourgeois, that are simultaneously trying to maximize their profits and to impose their own policies. The Austrian Right and its yellow press are, if anything, just a bit less refined than their more esteemed counterparts from larger imperialist powers.
Every politician under capitalism is corrupt. Some are sticking envelopes full of bills into their pockets, with the shameless criminal energy of Kurz or Strache. But others are voting for the interests of the bourgeoisie because their ideology prevents them from seeing any alternative. These “honest” politicians, surrounded by the wealthy and their lobbyists, also get enormous salaries and countless perks, as well as cushy jobs after their time spent with “public service.” What can this be called except legal corruption?
The institutional Left offers no alternative to this corrupt system. In Austria, the social democratic SPÖ is mired in its own corruption scandals going back decades. Yet as the Kurz scandal was unfolding, thousands of Viennese daycare workers were going on strike for better wages and working conditions. It is working people who, by building up their own political party, could put an end to all-encompassing corruption.