Most modern freedom is at root fear. It is not so much that we are too bold to endure rules; it is rather that we are too timid to endure responsibilities.
Austrian Conservatism has been torn for decades. With the Merkelization of the Christian-Democratic People’s Party (ÖVP) in full swing by the early 2000s, many conservatives put their hopes on the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) instead. But the FPÖ not only had to endure the usual media pressure that accompanies any right-wing movement; it had to deal with the fact that corruption scandals, splintering, and the almost inevitable accusations of affiliations to neo-nazism (founded or unfounded) had all damaged its cause.
When Sebastian Kurz arrived on the political stage, however, Austrian conservatives felt invigorated—he was the chosen one, supposed to unite conservatives under a clean new banner, not destroy them. And yet, after a career in federal politics that lasted less than a decade, he left all hopes for a conservative renewal of the ÖVP in shambles.
During his period as the youngest Austrian minister of foreign affairs in history, Kurz gained popularity in conservative circles for opposing an open-door policy during the migration crisis of 2015. When he then started his ‘palace revolt’ in 2017 against the former head of the ÖVP, Reinhold Mitterlehner, a takeover of the ÖVP by Kurz seemed like a logical conclusion of his stellar rise. But in light of what has surfaced about the manipulation of surveys that Kurz used strategically to bring himself to power, it is hard to trust that any of it was the result of the will of the people, rather than the outcome of internal power struggles fought with ruthless abandon.
While the Left always accused Kurz of being opportunistic, the Right was more than willing to embrace him. After winning the election in 2017 and becoming chancellor, Kurz formed a coalition with the FPÖ as his junior partner and a period of roughly one and a half years of relatively stable governing began. While the Austrian press continued trying to defame the FPÖ, Kurz became known as the ‘silent chancellor,’ usually avoiding any comment on allegations surrounding the FPÖ.
During his first tenure as chancellor, Kurz started appointing many of his personal friends as advisors, secretaries of state, and ministerial employees on a massive scale. Nepotism isn’t anything new, and there are plenty of historical examples where it didn’t hinder benevolent rule, but in the case of the Kurz administration, peace didn’t last for long. The scandal following Ibizagate in 2019 broke up the hitherto harmonious appearance of the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition, and within a day of the story breaking high-ranking party members of the ÖVP demanded a break up of the coalition unless Herbert Kickl (FPÖ) stepped down as minister of the interior. That was a remarkable demand, considering that Kickl was never accused of being involved in Ibizagate, leading many to believe that Kickl himself was close to uncovering some scandalous structures in the ministry of the interior that had traditionally been led by the ÖVP.
Following Ibizagate, the FPÖ lost a considerable number of votes during the following elections and decided early on that it would no longer coalesce with the ÖVP. Instead, Kurz formed a new government with the Green Party, whose members must have been especially grateful for the tumultuous breakup of the former coalition. After all, the Greens had been booted from parliament as a result of the previous elections, only to return during the election following the break-up and immediately becoming part of the government.
But the scandals didn’t die down. On the contrary, the committee inquiring into Ibiza-gate found more and more signs hinting at the venality of the ÖVP, and not the FPÖ. Kurz and one of his closest advisors, Bernhard Bonelli, were questioned and subsequently charged with giving false testimony to the committee on May 12, 2021. The process remains unresolved at the time of the writing of this article.
Kurz then found himself entangled in yet another scandal surrounding his close confidant Thomas Schmid, former chairman of the state-owned holding company known as ÖBAG. While Schmid was still the general secretary of the ministry of finance, he tailored the job description for the chairman of ÖBAG specifically for himself, chose the hiring board, and “spent months during his time at the finance ministry to make sure he won the position,” according to Politico.
The cherry on top of Thomas Schmid’s scandal was revealed after the prosecution found not only incriminating chat protocols between Schmid, Kurz, and many other members of the ÖVP ‘family,’ but also his collection of almost 3,000 explicit photos of men on his mobile phone. This has fueled speculation about the sexual orientation of members of the closely-knit network within the outwardly conservative Kurz ‘family.’ The chat protocols found on Thomas Schmid’s mobile phone, including his exchanges with Kurz and other senior ÖVP members, also portray Schmid as a public servant who repeatedly expressed disdain for the common man (referring to citizens as “rabble” or even “animals”).
It is apparent in one of these chats that Kurz was more than willing to reward Schmid for his loyalty (“You’ll get whatever you want anyway”), which is likely to be connected to Schmid pulling the strings in the background, coordinating the placement of what Schmid and his friends referred internally as the “Beinschab-Österreich-Tool”—the name given to the manipulated surveys that helped sway public opinion in favor of Sebastian Kurz during his power grab in the ÖVP in 2017.
Another key player in this web of corruption was Sophie Karmasin, a pollster and former minister of families and youth appointed by the ÖVP in 2013. Her employee Sabine Beinschab was responsible for creating the manipulated surveys in question, and for whom the ‘tool’ was named the ‘tool’ in Schmid’s internal communications. Karmasin’s role was to act as the middleman tasked with ensuring that the ÖVP’s manipulated surveys appeared in the newspaper Österreich. The owner of Österreich, Wolfgang Fellner, is currently being prosecuted for his involvement in the “publication of manipulated surveys in exchange for money.” Fellner denies any knowledge of the manipulated nature of the surveys.
Sophie Karmasin was arrested as recently as March 3rd and is currently in prison in pre-trial detention. Her arrest may be a result of evidence given by Sabine Beinschab, who is hoping to gain immunity from prosecution by becoming a government witness.
The accusations against Kurz and his many confidants ultimately led to Kurz resigning from his position as chancellor of Austria in October 2021, and, after a short period of attempting to stay involved in Austrian politics, his retirement from Austrian politics altogether.
Contrary to the procedure during the coalition government of the ÖVP and the FPÖ, this time the coalition was not broken up. Instead, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg replaced Kurz as chancellor for a period of a month and a half, during which time he managed to introduce mandatory vaccination in Austria before resigning, making way for Interior Minister Karl Nehammer to become the third Austrian chancellor in less than three months.
What reads like a story of thinly veiled corruption from a banana republic, happened in the Central European democracy of Austria. Even if the fact that our politicians are mostly corrupt doesn’t surprise us, we would at least assume that there would be consequences for those caught red-handed. After all, accountability is one of the key checks and balances of a democracy to prevent such abuse of power.
But unfortunately the reality of the matter is that the elites in our late-stage democracy have long found ways to circumvent this system. The higher up the corruption takes place, the more likely those involved have ways to evade the consequences of their behavior. The first consequence in such a situation—and most commonly cited way of ensuring accountability—would be to hold elections. But the Austrian government would have none of it, ÖVP and Green Party both being happy to instead replace chancellor after chancellor and minister after minister, only to ensure that the current coalition continues to stay in power.
And what about the affiliates of Sebastian Kurz? Thomas Schmid has dodged further inquiry by simply moving to Amsterdam, since persons residing abroad cannot legally be summoned to appear in front of the committee of inquiry. Bernhard Bonelli recently announced that he and a friend were starting a growth capital fund dedicated to investing in B2B software in European companies.
Last but not least, Sebastian Kurz did not fall from grace for long. After just three months, he not only joined Thiel Capital as “Global Strategist” in the beginning of 2022, but was also appointed as co-chairman of the European Council on Tolerance and Reconciliation (ECTR), a non-governmental organization established in Paris, in which he joins former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has headed the organization since 2013.
The emerging picture is one of global elites (of all political parties) as ‘untouchables,’ of people whose networks allow them to cover their corrupt tracks and relocate when needed to avoid the constraints of national legislations. It would be naive to assume that Sebastian Kurz and his “family” (as they referred to themselves in the chats of Thomas Schmid) are exceptions to the rule. Sabine Beinschab herself expressed dismay about similar (but unproven) forms of manipulated surveys by the Social-Democratic Party (SPÖ) during 2010-2013. All this paints a grim picture of civil servants who live and act above the law, having utter contempt for the citizens they are supposed to represent and no sense of accountability.
In ancient Athens, democratic participation of citizens was an all-encompassing set of rights and duties, a task born out of personal stakes in the well-being of the Republic. Citizens had to be materially independent, which was supposed to keep them from abusing the powers of citizenry to enrich themselves. We have long replaced this with a caste of professional politicians that often have never worked outside of politics, or—as in the case of Sebastian Kurz—haven’t even finished their studies. In doing so, we have groomed a class of opportunists and professional blenders: bureaucrats at best, traitors at worst.
For long, enlightened democrats have ridiculed feudal rule, but this has obscured the fact that concepts such as honor and personal accountability once had meaning. The final remnants of such accountability can be found in Japanese society, where dishonorable rule leads not only to public apology, but up until recently might have even led to ritual suicide. While no one is advocating for the introduction of Seppuku in Western society, the problem of accountability in modern democracies remains unsolved. It can only be solved by leadership that accepts the challenge posed by G.K. Chesterton in the quotation at the beginning of this piece: leadership willing to endure responsibilities. Whether this leadership can be found by means of elections that are increasingly fought manipulatively on the battlefield of mass media, or whether the answer to our oligarchic structures lies in aristocratic rule, is the question at hand.