Schüssel’s Bad Bargain

Opinion | Dardis McNamee | October 2011

Austria seems to be awash in corruption. Every day brings new revelations: Today we learn that some €2.6 million in advertising flowed from ÖBB Holding, the parent company of the Austrian Railway, into the three tabloids, the Kronen Zeitung, Österreich and the free-circulation U-Bahn daily Heute, apparently with the assignment of "keeping the public informed."

Of what exactly is, of course, open to question – which has led Der Standard columnist Hans Rauscher to wonder if all those handsome campaign ads for Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann helped protect the ÖBB from public demonstrations against Vienna’s new Central Station (Hauptbahnhof), like those that have paralyzed the Deutsche Bahn’s plans to tear down the historic station in Stuttgart.

Still, placing advertising for state-owned enterprises or government projects, while ripe for moral hazard, is not illegal.

Which is more than can be said for the ever-growing list of scandals dating from the administration of former Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (ÖVP). And it is a long list, from selling off public housing from the BUWOG (Bundeswohungen Gesellschaft) to a private concern (Immofinanz) way below market, as former Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser has been accused of doing; to Interior Minister Ernst Strasser’s puzzling reassignment of government telecommunications contracts to Alcatel and Motorola; to the insider contract for construction of the Eurofighter – still unfinished – guided by arms lobbyist Alfons Mensdorff-Pouilly who also happens husband of Schüssel’s former Women’s Minister Maria Rauch Kallat.

One of the latest and ugliest has been the so-called Telekom Scandal, involving the manipulation of the stock price of Austria Telekom combined with direct bribes, as well as former managers co-operating with Mensdorff-Pouilly in a range of government contracts, for which he seems to have been paid on both sides.

Altogether, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) finds itself in a swamp of corruption, that Joachim Riedl, of Die Zeit’s Vienna bureau, characterises as an "all-you-can-eat buffet" opened on Wolfgang Schüssel’s watch. And while the party leadership stand behind him, there is dissention even in their ranks, as from Salzburg ÖVP chief Wilfried Haslauer, who commented wryly that "if you lie down with dogs, you might just awake with fleas."

It was indeed a devil’s bargain made in 2000, when Wolfgang Schüssel formed a coalition with the extreme right Freedom Party (FPÖ), awarding ministerial jobs to incompetent parvenus in exchange for far-right voting blocks that put his third-ranking party at the head of the government and made him chancellor.

Perhaps he thought he could control them; if so, he was wrong.


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