The collapse of Austria’s governing coalition marked the end of a political venture that critics say appeared doomed from the start.
Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache of the far-right Freedom Party resigned Saturday after videos emerged that purported to show him promising government contracts in exchange for political donations from a woman posing as a member of a Russian oligarch family. Strache also stepped down as his party’s leader.
Hours later, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of the conservative party called for new elections. On Monday he announced the ouster of the far-right interior minister, prompting the remaining far-right government ministers to resign in protest.
The growing crisis not only signals the possible marginalization of the Freedom Party, at least temporarily, but has also refocused attention on the party’s extremist elements and the far right’s connections to Russia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel weighed in on the turmoil, saying Europe needed to “stand up decisively” to right-wing populists, who have gained support across the continent in recent years on a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment.
The reasons for the coalition break up had piled up in recent months.
“There were many situations that were hard for me to put up with,” Kurz said, listing recent scandals involving the Freedom Party, including its ties to other far-right groups and a poem published by a party official that compared migrants with rats.
Kurz has defended his decision to form a coalition with the party, saying there were no alternatives. But his critics say he downplayed allegations that the far right — with its ties to Russia — has undermined Austrian security services and news media since it became part of the coalition in 2017.
The final straw was the footage of a boozy night on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza.
“After yesterday’s video, I must say enough is enough,” he said.
The conversation recorded in the videos, secretly recorded in 2017 before the Austrian elections, centered on plans by the woman’s billionaire uncle to acquire a stake in Austria’s largest tabloid, Kronen Zeitung, which Strache appeared to hope could boost his party’s support. The German weekly Der Spiegel and the daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung were first to publish excerpts from the videos.
In the video, Strache also mocked Kurz, his soon-to-be coalition partner.
The meeting appears to have been a trap, though it remains unclear who recorded the hours-long conversation and leaked the material and why it surfaced a week before elections for the European Parliament.
In a statement, Strache denied any wrongdoing and said his actions were “stupid, irresponsible and a mistake.”
For many Austrians, Strache was an unlikely pick for vice chancellor in the first place.
The 49-year-old, a trained dental technician, was once best known for his past ties to right-wing extremist circles.
In 1989 on New Year’s Eve, he was detained near the German city of Fulda at a rally of the so-called Wiking Jugend, a group that viewed itself to be the successor of Hitler’s youth organization before it was banned. The name of the group is a reference to the Wiking division of Hitler’s Waffen SS.
The incident was reported in a local paper, Fuldaer Zeitung, but disappeared in the archives. But it reemerged about a decade ago when journalists started looking into Strache as his influence increased as far-right leader.
Photographs also show Strache surrounded by men who would later go on to become members in right-wing extremist and often violent groups.
Strache did not respond to requests for an interview but previously has said he did not know what the group stood for back then.
In interviews and public appearances, Strache has given different accounts of his activities in those years but has maintained that his past has nothing to do with the man he is today.
When Strache became the leader of the Freedom Party in 2005, it had just gone through a tumultuous period as a government coalition partner in which public support plummeted.
Under Strache, it returned to its more extreme roots — a strategy that paid off in terms of support, especially as more refugees began arriving in Austria in 2015.
About one-fourth of voters supported the Freedom Party in 2017, its best showing in national elections since Strache became party leader.
The Freedom Party has been a government coalition partner several times in the decades since it was founded by former SS officers after World War II. But it gained control over the coveted Ministry of Interior for the first time when it joined the government in 2017.
Critics’ fears were realized when the ministry’s new leadership ordered raids on the domestic intelligence service in February 2018, a move a court later ruled was largely illegal.
A senior European intelligence official said foreign intelligence agencies suspected the raid “had been an attempt to stop investigations against members of the party who had connections to Russia or right-wing extremist groups.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Foreign intelligence services froze Austria out on some intelligence sharing to prevent information from falling into the hands of the Kremlin, as The Washington Post reported last August.
The Freedom Party has repeatedly threatened to support a revamp of the funding model for the public broadcaster ORF, which media freedom advocates say could endanger its impartiality.
“Things are happening which I would not have considered to be possible a few years ago: that a governing party officially says it wants to neutralize the public broadcaster,” anchorman Armin Wolf, who works for ORF and is one of the country’s leading TV journalists, said in an interview conducted before Strache’s resignation.
In a polarized Austrian media landscape, Wolf has often been credited for sparing no side.
As its ties were being scrutinized following the Christchurch attack in New Zealand, the Freedom Party distanced itself from fringe groups and defended its role in the governing coalition.
But its opponents say extremism is not only ingrained in those groups but also in the Freedom Party itself.
Hours after the mosque shootings in March in Christchurch, New Zealand, officials thousands of miles away in Vienna — including Strache — joined people around the world in expressing outrage and shock.
Less than two weeks later, authorities in Vienna raided the home of Martin Sellner, head of a far-right Identitarian Movement, to investigate why the alleged gunman, Brenton Tarrant, had donated money to his group months before the attack.
Before the raid, Freedom Party officials had expressed support for the Identitarian Movement. But amid an outcry after the mosque attack, Kurz urged his coalition partners to distance themselves from Sellner and his group.
Identitarian Movement is an activist group that seeks to drive public opinion to the far-right, mostly through campaigns designed for social media. Both groups are part of a growing network of intertwined far-right nationalist organizations and parties operating across Europe.
Since 2013, an association focused on preserving the memory of Austria’s Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp has documented more than 100 incidents in which Freedom Party officials have been accused of having links to right-wing extremist activities, including officials being part of anti-Semitic Facebook groups that glorified Nazi Germany and advertisements in a right-wing extremist magazine paid for by the party.
Weeks after the mosque shooting, Strache said fighting “population exchange” would remain a party goal. The phrase, which suggests Muslim immigrants are replacing Europe’s supposedly Judeo-Christian identity, echoed the far-right “Great Replacement” theory, which Tarrant cited to try to explain his mass murder.
Strache’s use of the phrase was a “political victory” for the Identitarian Movement and “a signal from the party to the base” that their messaging would not change, Sellner said.
In an interview with The Post, Sellner compared the Freedom Party’s efforts to deny overlap with his movement to a scenario in which the “Green Party would distance themselves from Greenpeace.”
“Not all voters of the Freedom Party are Identitarians, but all Identitarians are also voters of the Freedom Party,” he said.