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“We’re Going to Ibiza!” Austria’s Coalition Government Falls

Video of the Ibiza Affair, showing Johann Gudenus (left), his wife Tajana (centre) and Heinz-Christian Strache (right) meeting with the woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch

I was in Austria for several days last week, attending a conference at the university in the Alpine town of Klagenfurt.

Austria is probably one of the last places on earth one would expect to have a major political scandal, but the repercussions of one occurred during the time I was there.

I was able to watch the swearing-in of Austria’s first ever woman leader on the evening news. Brigitte Bierlein will be the interim chancellor until a snap election is held by the end of September. A former chief prosecutor, Bierlein will lead a government of politically unaffiliated technocrats.

The snap election was called after Bierlein’s predecessor was ousted over a video sting scandal.

Sebastian Kurz, who was only 6 months into his term as chancellor, lost a confidence vote two weeks ago after his far-right coalition partner was caught on video promising lucrative contracts in return for political favours.

The so-called “Ibiza Affair” ensued when a German newspaper published a video of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) leader and the then vice-chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, meeting with a woman claiming to be a Russian billionaire at a holiday home on the Spanish island of Ibiza.

In the recording, filmed in the run-up to the 2017 election, the woman offered to buy the country’s leading newspaper and, taking a page out of Rupert Murdoch’s playbook, said she would change its editorial line to support the far-right party.

Strache fell for the ruse, and suggested lucrative public contracts could be awarded to the fake Russian billionaire in exchange for her purchase of the newspaper.

Strache resigned when the sting was made public, the government collapsed after parliament passed a no-confidence vote, and Bierlein’s temporary government of technocrats took over.

Strache’s FPÖ is one of the more successful populist far-right parties in the EU, with Strache using his cabinet position as interior minister to launch anti-immigrant policies.

The scandal had its lighter side.

The Dutch band Vengaboys’ song “We’re Going To Ibiza” became a number 1 hit in Austria soon after the Ibiza Affair erupted, and the band was invited by protestors to give a performance in front of the Federal Chancellery in Vienna days before I arrived. Vengaboys brought the downtown of the city of Beethoven to a standstill.

“We’re Going To Ibiza”, a sing-along vacation song about Spain’s version of Atlantic City or Myrtle Beach, was first released in 1999 by a different band and topped the UK charts at that time.

No one in their wildest dreams could imagine “We’re Going To Ibiza” ever becoming a protest song—Bob Dylan or Joan Baez would probably have seen it, rightly, as just so much dross. Here are the song’s lyrics:

I don’t want to be a bus driver
All my life
I’m gonna pack my bags and leave this town
Grab a flight
Fly away on Venga airways
Fly me high
Ibiza sky

I look up at the sky
And I see the clouds
I looked down at the ground
And I see the rainbow down the drain
Fly away on Venga airways
Fly me high
Ibiza sky

Whoah! We’re going to Ibiza
Whoah! Back to the island
Whoah! We’re gonna have a party
Whoah! In the Mediterranean Sea (This chorus is repeated 5 times!)

Far away from this big town
And the rain
It’s really very nice to be
Home again
Fly away on Venga airways
Fly me high, Ibiza sky

The Ibiza Affair represents a set-back for the right-wing populists seeking to form a mutually supportive network across Europe.

Populist parties did not do as well as expected on an EU-wide basis in last month’s elections for the European Parliament, despite making considerable gains in the UK (the Brexit party of Trump’s pal Nigel Farage) and Italy (the election of Mussolini’s great-grandson, and the return to politics of the 82-year-old billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, the latter perhaps something of a role-model for Trump with his ability to combine authoritarianism with spray-on tans and trysts with “models” and “starlets”, as well as hefty doses of corruption).

Unfortunately, Austria’s disgraced right-wing coalition is still likely to win the election in September.

An opinion poll published by the country’s Krone newspaper showed Herr Kurz’s conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) on 38%, better than the 31% it won at the last election.

The Krone poll, which is roughly in line with other recent polls, shows the FPÖ’s support down– understandably after its leader’s ill-judged jaunt to Ibiza—sliding from the 26% it won in the December 2017 election to the Krone poll’s 19%.

In Klagenfurt however there were no protests, and one of my hosts told me that its province of Carinthia, of which Klagenfurt is the capital, is an FPÖ stronghold.

Jörg Haider, the long-time leader of the FPÖ before he split from it, was governor of the right-leaning Carinthia on two occasions. Haider was an open antisemite, Islamophobe, and Nazi sympathizer (he once said Hitler’s “labour practices” were better than Austria’s).

Haider died in a crash while speeding and driving drunk in 2008, and another of my hosts told me those opposed to Haider are known to say the fatal drunk-driving crash was the only good thing emerging from his wretched life—his death late in the year (October) lent a major impetus to Austria’s annual Christmas anti-drunk driving campaign in 2008.

It is not difficult to see why Carinthia is something of a breeding ground for xenophobes. It borders Slovenia and Italy, and the Slavic and Italianate influences are visible everywhere.

I was told that causal ethnic stereotyping is fairly common: Italians (“lazy and unreliable”), Slavs (“horny and dishonest”).

But the heights of splenetic bigotry are reserved for Carinthia’s small Turkish community. As Muslims, they face not just rampant stereotyping but, in some cases, open violence from Islamophobes.

Next week I’ll be in China– unlike the dentist turned xenophobic politician Herr Strache, I have no reason or desire to go to Ibiza.

Kenneth Surin is emeritus at Duke University. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

 

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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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