Press play to listen to this article
Politicians in crisis tend to either lash out at their opponents or try to change the subject. Sebastian Kurz enlists his mother.
“My mother is extremely sad and worried,” the Austrian chancellor told the daily Kronen Zeitung earlier this month. “She says she wished something else for me than politics and this treatment.”
Kurz’s mother is right to be concerned. Her son, 34, faces a criminal investigation into whether he lied to a parliamentary inquiry — a crime that carries up to three years in prison. Kurz isn’t the only one in trouble; several members of his inner circle, including his close friend and consigliere, Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, are under investigation for crimes ranging from bribery to obstruction of justice in connection with a scandal that first came to light in 2019 amid evidence that senior politicians were trading favors and influence for top jobs at an Austrian casinos operator.
All of those under investigation maintain their innocence. Kurz has signaled that he wouldn’t resign if indicted. He has refused to address what he’d do if convicted, dismissing the notion as unfathomable.
What’s really at stake in the sweeping scandal, constitutional scholars say, is not the future of the bold-faced names involved but the rule of law in Austria. Kurz’s use of his mother as witness to the supposed poor treatment he’s been subjected to at the hands of investigators and the political opposition is one of the more harmless examples of what many see as an orchestrated attempt to discredit the probe. Particularly worrying, they say, are the persistent attacks against prosecutors and investigators that Kurz and his cohorts have engaged in in recent months.
“The danger is that when the chancellor or some other senior official attacks the judiciary, something is going to stick,” said Heinz Mayer, a leading Austrian constitutional expert. “Kurz is very professional about it.”
It’s a pattern familiar across Central Europe, where the likes of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the leaders of Poland’s Law and Justice party have systematically neutered their countries’ judiciaries over the years. Those moves have drawn the ire of the European Union, but Brussels has so far proved powerless to do much about it.
While Austria’s independent judiciary is still intact, critics warn that Kurz’s government has launched an all-out assault on it. (Kurz’s office did not respond to a request for comment.)
The most eye-popping salvo occurred came earlier this month when Blümel, who is under investigation for alleged bribery, escalated a standoff with the constitutional court by refusing to comply with an order that he hand over thousands of pages of documents to a parliamentary inquiry probing the alleged corruption. The minister backed down only after Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen, calling Blümel’s move unprecedented, threatened to dispatch the military to execute the order.
The president, whose role is largely ceremonial, was so troubled by the episode and what he regarded as the broader erosion of standards among the governing class that he felt moved to deliver a video primer from his Vienna palace on the importance of the rule of law, calling it the “immune system of our state.”
“Our judicial institutions have to be able to carry out their work in peace without interruption,” he said. “We have to take these institutions seriously.”
Whether such appeals are a match for Kurz’s PR machine is a matter of debate.
The chancellor’s strategy is to gradually discredit the integrity of the judicial system through relentless attacks and innuendo, Mayer said.
Last year, for example, Kurz told journalists during a background briefing that the office of the corruption prosecutor was a tool of the opposition Social Democrats. Though Kurz later said he was misquoted, the reports played in his favor by casting suspicion on the prosecutor’s office.
Then earlier this year, Kurz accused prosecutors of leaking false information. One of the lead prosecutors on the case, Matthias Purkart, told parliament in testimony last week that his office has been the subject of persistent behind-the-scenes “diversions” by government officials that have hindered its work.
In the wake of corruption prosecutors’ decision to name Kurz a suspect, for example, supervisory authorities triggered an internal investigation into whether they followed appropriate procedures, Purkart said, adding that it “bothered” him.
Corruption prosecutors enjoy broad autonomy to pursue cases, but they ultimately report into the hierarchy of the justice ministry. Though the ministry is now under the control of the Greens, Kurz’s junior coalition partner, it was long the preserve of the chancellor’s own People’s Party (ÖVP) and many of the top civil servants there have close connections to his camp.
One of those officials is Christian Pilnacek, who until recently oversaw all criminal prosecutions and counted as the ministry’s most powerful civil servant. Pilnacek is under investigation for allegedly sharing confidential information with parties outside the ministry and other suspected misconduct. The senior prosecutor, who was suspended in March, denies any wrongdoing.
Blümel’s chief of staff turned to Pilnacek for advice in February after the minister learned authorities were going to seize his communications and other evidence. In a text exchange with Blümel’s aide later revealed by Austrian investigators, Pilnacek called the move by corruption prosecutors a “putsch.”
At the very least, Pilnacek’s communications with Kurz’s camp reveal a level of collaboration between a powerful prosecutor and senior government officials that could jeopardize the integrity of the independent judiciary, critics say.
It’s the potential for such long-term institutional damage that worries even some in Kurz’s own conservative circle. Franz Fischler, a former Austrian EU commissioner from the chancellor’s party, said his country faces a similar dynamic to the U.S. under former President Donald Trump, whose relentless attacks on those investigating his alleged wrongdoing have shaken the public’s confidence in the legal system.
“But like the U.S., I think the Austrian system is ultimately strong enough to withstand these risks because in the end the people won’t put up with it,” Fischler said.
Not everyone is so sure. Mayer, the constitutional scholar, warned that many Austrians aren’t paying close attention to what’s happening and are fed up with the political infighting.
“When a state’s system of governance begins to slide, it can quickly reach a point of no return,” he said. “I worry that we’re sliding.”
At least Kurz has his mother to catch him.