Friday, 02 April 2021 17:58

Vaccine row and domestic leaks tarnish Austrian leader’s image

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz attends a video conference with EU leaders during a virtual EU summit, in Vienna last week. Photograph: EPA/Christian Bruna


Four years ago Sebastian Kurz made a promise to Austrian voters: elect me as chancellor and I will drain our country’s political swamp of sleaze and cronyism.

The political wunderkind, then foreign minister and just 31, touched a nerve and took office as a projection for whatever voters wanted to see: a progressive conservative; a polite young man who looked good in a slim-fit suit; a razor-sharp mind with a taste for power.

His shiny, non-stick surface helped him survive a coalition with the far-right, returning to office last year stronger than ever. But this week, Austria’s political Icarus landed with a bump with EU allies, just as cracks appear at home in the slick turquoise paint he used to rebrand his centre-right People’s Party in 2017.

After four years of image management as exact as his suit tailoring, Kurz has been exposed by his own hand, in a series of jovial jobs-for-the-boys text messages.

The most damaging involves ÖBAG, a conglomerate that manages multibillion-euro state holdings in everything from the post office to a casino operator.

One exchange from the autumn of 2019 involves Thomas Schmid – a loyal ÖVP figure and friend of the chancellor, in line for the top job at ÖBAG. He writes to his friend Kurz: “Please don’t make me a chief executive without a mandate.”

In his emoji-laced reply, Kurz wrote: “You always get what you want anyway.”

Schmid’s grateful response: “I am so happy . . . I love my chancellor.”

The texts were uncovered by investigators as part of an investigation into the so-called “Ibiza affair” that toppled Kurz’s first government with the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). Secret video recordings made in a holiday villa in Ibiza in 2017 appeared to show FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache promising political favours to a would-be party donor.

Inquiry

Investigators probing that affair have cast their net wide, even raiding the office and home of Austrian finance minister Gernot Blümel. He is a close friend of Kurz and, when their joint efforts to secure Thomas Schmid his desired job succeeded, Blümel wrote the new chief executive a message of congratulations, describing the holding company as “Schmid PLC”.

In testimony to a parliamentary inquiry on the Ibiza affair, Kurz said he was merely “informed” about Schmid’s application for the job.

But another version is emerging from 300,000 messages accessed on 10 seized mobile phones and cloud services. The messages are now leaking on a daily basis into the Austrian media, wearing away the Kurz promise of a new style of politics.

Kurz’s sheen at EU level was never as bright as at home, given his reputation for solo runs and lectures on political leadership. There have been plenty of both in the last years, as Austria moved quickly with unilateral measures. Last month Kurz travelled with Danish leader Mette Frederiksen to Israel, but insisted their meetings there about vaccine research partnerships were not at the expense of other EU members.

Vaccine tensions reached new heights in recent days with news that German developer BioNTech was able to add 10 per cent more doses to the EU’s 100 million order.

EU diplomats from several countries say Kurz and his officials threatened to block the entire delivery unless Vienna got a larger share of the bonus cache. Ahead of an EU leader video conference, Kurz described as a “bazaar” the EU’s formula for sharing out vaccines based on population size and medical need.

Other EU members reacted with surprise to his claim, pointing to Austria’s lead role in writing the rules. In the end, the EU found an agreement that cut Austria from the additional vaccine distribution.

Aware his EU allies won’t forget his vaccine veto threat in a hurry, and conscious of growing pressure at home, Kurz has begun another solo run.

Rather than wait for European approval, Kurz has followed Hungary to embrace the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, with one million doses for delivery by early June.

“We are in the last metres and it’s likely a Sputnik order can follow next week,” tweeted Kurz on Thursday after talks with Russia’s ambassador to Austria. “I’m very happy about the binding agreement.”