The Ibiza Committee has brought an investigation into Sebastian Kurz. Now Austria’s Chancellor has to testify again. His ÖVP railed against the “political tribunal”, the opposition felt mocked.
Gernot Blümel doesn’t want to say anything, and he won’t say anything either. Austria’s finance minister, the closest political companion of ÖVP Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, is sitting in front of the Ibiza Committee in the Vienna Hofburg on a humid Thursday, separated from the MPs by a plexiglass wall. Blümel has been invited to provide information, but the parliamentarians wait in vain for information. A total of 35 times he invokes Section 43, Paragraph 1, Item 1 of the Rules of Procedure, everyone here in the chimney room of the National Library knows what that means: Blümel invokes his right to refuse to testify.
“A mockery of parliament” is what the opposition calls the four-hour appearance of the finance minister; Blümel thinks that the body “damaged the political discourse in this country”. This has been going on for over a year and a total of 53 meetings: The Ibiza Committee is Austria’s largest political arena, the stage for bitter disputes and power games.
That has never happened before
The legendary Ibiza video is only marginally involved, in the Hofburg a much more fundamental question is to be clarified: Was or can politics in Austria be bought? Can you really choose a nice post or handy laws for a donation? What was it that ex-FPÖ boss Heinz-Christian Strache told the alleged oligarch niece over tons of Vodka-Red-Bull – truth or crap? Quite a few rich and powerful had to answer questions, Karstadt owner René Benko was there, arms patriarch Kathrin Glock and the entire political elite of the republic from Chancellor Sebastian Kurz downwards.
Chancellor Kurz in focus: The interest was huge right from his first appearance. (Source: Eibner Europa / imago images)
This Thursday there will be a showdown when Sebastian Kurz takes a seat as an informant for the second time. With his first appearance, the youngest head of government in Europe maneuvered himself into the greatest crisis of his term in office: The judiciary is investigating false testimony, an indictment threatens with incalculable political consequences for his coalition with the Greens. An active chancellor in the dock, that has never been seen in Austria.
All against the Chancellor’s Party
The investigations do not stop with the Federal Chancellor, the judiciary is also targeting powerful figures from his environment, including Finance Minister Blümel, Kurz’s head of cabinet, the ex-finance minister, two ex-vice chancellors, an ex-ÖVP party vice, and a senior judicial officer and the ex-head of the state holding company. The allegations range from false statements and breaches of official secrecy to bribery.
Strache’s seminar in the Austrian “Freunderlwirtschaft” on Ibiza provided enough initial suspicion for raids in which corruption hunters collected the cell phones of some VIPs. The investigation files then go to the committee, which is supposed to clarify political responsibility. Because investigators found not only traces of Strache’s ex-FPÖ party, but above all of the Chancellor’s party, a strange constellation emerges in the committee: everyone against the ÖVP – including the coalition partners of the Greens. For this reason, ÖVP man Andreas Hanger once called the committee a “political tribunal”.
In fact, things are not exactly cozy in Austria: fierce rules of procedure debates regularly slow down the round of questions, MPs have to justify themselves because they allegedly bite into the meat loaf, and respondents repeatedly drive parliamentarians with the Ibiza Disease Committee into despair: spontaneous dementia. The record is held by Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, who cited memory gaps 86 times in his first survey.
“They go to me at the Oasch, everyone!”
It was the day when Stephanie Krisper became better known than she would like: The leader of the liberal Neos, exasperated by the wall tactics, cursed to herself – because she had accidentally not switched off her microphone, the whole hall could get her Vienna Grant hear: “They go to me at the Oasch, everyone!”
Enlightener Stephanie Krisper from the Neos: Any distraction from the core of the Ibiza Committee is repugnant to her. (Source: SEPA.Media/imago images)
Krisper rolls his eyes when you ask her about the sentence: “That was unnecessary, it distracted from Mr. Blümel’s appearance.” The trained lawyer likes her answers short and straightforward, as well as her questions in the committee. With her no-bullshit attitude, she has earned a good reputation as an educator, she hates any distraction from the actual topic of the committee, you can see it when again debates on rules of procedure are started that cost valuable time. Like Sebastian Kurz’s first appearance about a year ago, when he made what is perhaps the most momentous mistake of his career.
As a person providing information, the Federal Chancellor was obliged to tell the truth, as usual he was informed about this before his questioning. What followed was a four-hour tour de force of post chats, donations and backroom politics, quite confrontational. Kurz was always up to date. When Krisper interrupted him once, the Chancellor counters: “I’m still on my word, right?”
“Totally relaxed”, that’s how Krisper experienced the Chancellor on this memorable day: “He made us feel like he was above the committee.” Shortly afterwards, he appeared before the press, repeating his most important point: “I was not in Ibiza.” But he did not tell the truth in one crucial detail question, believes the public prosecutor’s office for corruption: When he appointed his companion Thomas Schmid to head the billion-dollar state holding ÖBAG, Kurz only “wanted to have been involved in the sense of being informed”. Apparently he had no idea what the investigators would read on Schmid’s cell phone.
“I love my chancellor”
A few weeks before the investigators took his phone in a raid, Thomas Schmid had deleted all of his chats. But IT experts found a back-up, around 300,000 messages were back, a cash cow for the judiciary. In March of this year, messages from Sebastian Kurz to Thomas Schmid finally appeared in the media: “You can get everything you want anyway,” wrote the Chancellor, followed by three kissing emojis. The answer: “I love my Chancellor.”
Krisper immediately sent a fact sheet to the prosecutor. It is not the first time she has accused a committee member of a false testimony, but it is the first time an investigation has opened. A surprise? “Based on my experience: Yes. Based on the factual substrate: No.”
The proceedings against Kurz became known in May, a turning point for the committee: if the tone was always rough, it has now become irreconcilable. Kurz suddenly remembers “subversions and allegations” during his questioning and quotes the alleged statement of a former trial judge: “Every murderer is treated better in court than an informant in the committee.”
Finance minister lets guerrilla war escalate
His party friend, Wolfgang Sobotka, made people sit up and take notice with a memorable suggestion: he could imagine abolishing the truthfulness obligation for those providing information. Incidentally, Sobotka is President of Parliament and also chairman of the committee and had to change the seat of the informant twice because, as President, he heads an institute that has received grants from the Novomatic gaming company – a topic that Stephanie Krisper and other MPs should better just address. when you have a lot of time. In short: All parties except the ÖVP consider Sobotka to be biased, but he can only declare himself biased. A problem with the rules of procedure.
Finance Minister Gernot Blümel: Kurz’s closest confidante invoked his right to remain silent dozens of times. (Source: SEPA.Media/imago images)
Finance Minister Gernot Blümel meanwhile let his own guerrilla war with the committee escalate: he refused to deliver files, despite the verdict of the Constitutional Court. In the meantime, Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen had to “execute” the order; he sent judges to Blümel’s ministry to look for further files. A unique event in Austria’s post-war history.
Concern for the rule of law
“Almost a constitutional crisis,” says Peter Filzmaier. The political professor is a regular guest on Austrian television and is better known than many a minister, he knows his way around intrigues and power struggles. But he sees “with great misgivings” how the ÖVP is going out against parliament and the judiciary.
Kurz himself sniffed “red networks” in the judiciary, ie SPÖ connection, his party friends in the committee even attacked individual prosecutors by name and accused them of bias. “It is to be feared that this will damage the judiciary,” says Filzmaier.
A concern shared by dignitaries – at the beginning of June, the chairmen of the four higher regional courts opposed “attempts to shake confidence in the judiciary (…) for party-political, personal or populist reasons.”
The addressee does not appear by name, it is not necessary anyway. The attacks are more or less open, even the coalition partner of the Greens felt compelled to recommend restraint to the ÖVP. It is unclear whether the Greens want to continue the coalition with a chancellor in the dock on charges against Kurz for false testimony. The ÖVP seems to be preparing for the worst case, for the first time since Kurz’s rise to party leader and chancellor in 2017, names of possible successors are circulating through political Vienna. What Kurz needs is a break – maybe on Thursday in the Ibiza Committee.