VIENNA — Delusion, Freud argued, is not a disease but rather part of a healing process. The father of psychoanalysis’ homeland is doing its best to prove him wrong.
Ever since the sudden fall from grace of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz — the political prodigy turned persona non grata — Austria has found itself in a collective daze amid persistent scandal, political upheaval and toxic debates over the pandemic and the country’s not-so-distant past.
Yet instead of cleansing the system with a fresh election, the country appears determined to soldier on as if all were well.
About 60 percent of the public doesn’t think Austrian democracy is functioning properly and 90 percent say the political system is corrupt, according to a detailed study published last month.
Once a bulwark of stability, the ruling Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has struggled to maintain its legitimacy amid growing distrust of the government. In the space of just six weeks last autumn, the center-right ÖVP, which governs in coalition with the Greens, burned through two chancellors — Kurz and Alexander Schallenberg (who recently returned to his post as foreign minister).
After less than a month in the hot seat, the new chancellor, Karl Nehammer, is already flailing. Nehammer, a former army officer who served as interior minister in Kurz’s Cabinet, raised eyebrows over the holidays by claiming that his party “doesn’t have a corruption problem.”
Nehammer also caused a stir with his choice of successor at the interior ministry, Gerhard Karner, a small-town mayor from the state of Lower Austria. Karner spread anti-Semitic tropes during a regional election campaign in 2008, accusing the opposition of relying on “gentlemen from America and Israel” to “poison the atmosphere.” (After his recent appointment, Karner apologized for the comments, using the strange excuse that he made them 14 years ago at the tender age of 40.)
Karner is also an avowed admirer of Engelbert Dollfuß, who snuffed out Austrian democracy in 1933 and introduced a fascist dictatorship based on Benito Mussolini’s Italian model. Dollfuß, whose Christian Social Party was the precursor to the postwar ÖVP, was killed by the Nazis in a failed coup attempt in 1934 and has been revered by some Austrian conservatives ever since.
Karner has an even deeper connection to Dollfuß, however. His hometown of Texingtal is Dollfuß’s birthplace. As mayor, Karner oversaw a museum housed in the small home where Dollfuß was born. A plaque at the entrance describes the fascist dictator, who banned the opposition and had political opponents executed, as “Austria’s great chancellor and renewer.”
Karner’s other claim to fame is that he worked as a close aide to former Interior Minister Ernst Strasser. While serving as an MEP, Strasser was caught on video by the Sunday Times agreeing to amend legislation in return for a bribe from purported lobbyists. He was sentenced to three years in prison in 2014. Beyond that association, it’s not at all clear what would qualify Karner, who has a degree in business, to oversee Austria’s police and entire domestic security apparatus.
As Karner has tried to convince the world that he’s not an anti-Semite (or a fascist sympathizer), Nehammer has been busy putting out the other fires he set.
Austrian chancellors traditionally attend the New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic on January 1. Broadcast around the world, the event, which takes months to prepare, counts as the cultural high point of the Austrian calendar and is attended by the country’s political elite and assorted other luminaries from the president on down.
Nehammer excused himself from this year’s concert, saying that the “pandemic requires sacrifices from us all, myself included.”
The chancellor got COVID-19 anyway. On Friday, he announced he had contracted the virus from one of his bodyguards. The following day, however, a photo emerged showing Nehammer sitting in a packed ski lodge over the New Year that raised questions both about how he got COVID-19 and his explanation for not attending the concert.
His spokesman insists the chancellor contracted the virus from a member of his security detail, but has provided no scientific evidence to support that claim.
In most Western democracies — including Austria’s — the tried-and-true remedy to political rot is a snap election.
Back in 2019, new elections were called just hours after the release of a video that showed the country’s then-deputy chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, plotting to sell influence. The colorful footage, in which Strache offered to engineer the sale of Austria’s largest tabloid and steer lucrative state contracts to a woman he believed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch, was filmed secretly in 2017 by a private detective during a booze-fueled evening in Ibiza several months before Strache took office.
As damning as the tape was of Strache’s character, authorities didn’t uncover evidence that he followed through with any of the plans he proposed that evening. But that didn’t matter.
“Enough is enough,” then-Chancellor Kurz declared as he pulled the plug on his coalition with Strache’s far-right Freedom Party following the video’s release. Kurz decried his partner’s “attitude towards abuse of power, towards dealing with taxpayers’ money, towards the media in this country.”
Looking back, Kurz’s comments would appear to reflect what Freud called “projection.”
In the scandal that brought down Kurz’s chancellorship, prosecutors said they uncovered evidence that he led a scheme to use public funds to pay for manipulated polls and to bribe journalists in return for fawning coverage. Kurz and his associates deny any criminal wrongdoing.
Even so, the text message exchanges revealed by investigators between Kurz, his inner circle, journalists and pollsters paint a devastating picture of Austria’s political and media complex.
“We’ve never gone this far before,” Thomas Schmid, a Kurz confidant at the center of the affair, said in one chat, referring to the alleged media manipulation. “You get what you pay for. I love it.”
No matter what the courts ultimately decide, the damage to Austrian democracy is no less severe than that caused by the Ibiza affair.
It’s arguably worse: While Strache never acted on his braggadocio, there’s no doubt that Kurz led a well-planned dirty tricks campaign to undermine his political rivals. The only real question is whether it was illegal.
Austria’s future is no longer Kurz’s concern. After weeks of resisting, he relented and gave up his leadership of the ÖVP after previously stepping down as chancellor. He recently announced that he would go to work as an adviser to Peter Thiel, the German-born Silicon Valley billionaire.
And yet the system Kurz put in place, his party and his handpicked ministers (including both of his successors) remain firmly in place. The ÖVP, which won 38 percent of the vote in 2019, now polls at around 25 percent, second to the Social Democrats.
A new election is the last thing the party wants.
But the biggest obstacle to a new election is the Green Party, the ÖVP’s junior partner. Though combatting corruption is at the core of the party’s platform, the Greens’ leadership appears more worried about their prospects at the ballot box.
Despite their concerns over political corruption (or maybe as a result of it), Austrians are divided over whether to hold a snap election. In a poll released in December, 47 percent of respondents said the government should remain in place, while 41 percent advocated immediate elections and 12 percent were unsure.
Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, who has been central to keeping the state from collapsing amid the flood of scandal, has done his best in recent weeks to keep up appearances. In an effort to reassure the public, he said over the New Year that “Austria continues to enjoy a good reputation” in the world.
Thanks to the pandemic, most Austrians won’t have the opportunity anytime soon to test that claim. Those that do will discover how quickly delusion can evolve into another condition Freud chartered — depression.