On Friday 17 May the German Spiegel and Süddeutsche Zeitung released a video of the far-right Austrian politician Heinz-Christian Strache planning to subvert Austrian democracy in the run-up to the 2017 Austrian general election. The secret footage revealed a conversation between Strache, later elected Vice Chancellor of Austria, and a Russian-Latvian oligarch offering to buy majority shares in the national newspaper Kronen Zeitung in return for positive coverage of Strache’s Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). Within a day of the video’s release Strache had resigned as Vice Chancellor and as head of the FPÖ, and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced snap-elections for September.
On 18 April this year the long-awaited Mueller Report was published, albeit its contents edited. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation details the extent to which Donald Trump benefited from “systematic” Kremlin-backed interference into the 2016 presidential election campaign, while outlining ten potential instances of President Trump obstructing justice. No action has been taken against President Trump since, with no political will to impeach him despite the ability for a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives to do so. The outcomes of “Ibiza Gate” and the Mueller Report are telling of the state of both a young and a centuries old democracy either side of the pond. Faced with the dangerous subversion of democracy posed by corrupt, far-right politicians, it is Austria which has triumphed over the supposedly resilient American institutions by quickly purging itself of what has been long considered one of the most successful populist governments in Europe.
In both instances it is political culture which allows us to understand why populist Trump reigns under an imperial presidency, while Strache and his basket of deplorable neo-Nazis are finally on their way out. Ironically for populists who platform on a nativist and nation-aggrandising ballot, the principle of national sovereignty is conveniently ambiguous when it comes to running an election. For the record, what Austria has just done in calling for the new elections is clarified that there be no foreign intervention in the electoral process. This is a primal tenet of trust in democratic processes, where the slightest whiff of foreign collusion in Austria has led to a re-run to ensure public trust in politics is maintained. Centre-right Chancellor Kurz’s decision to hold his coalition to account was the correct choice to right a wrong in the democratic process where green party President Alexander van der Bellen also spoke of Austrian citizens being able to trust their democracy. The election is not predicated on short-sighted opportunism – of the such we are all too familiar with in Theresa May’s 2017 snap-election – but on the principles of democratic accountability and trust.
The USA, however, could not be further from Austria in sharing a cross-party approach to electoral law and upholding the sanctity of an unobstructed electoral process. Following the release of the Mueller Report, a poll found that 75% of Republicans thought “Trump has been honest and truthful when it comes to the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election”, with eight in ten maintaining that Trump should not face impeachment. The extent to which American politics and society remains partisan is politically paralysing. Americans cannot have an honest conversation on the wrongs committed by the ‘Leader of the Free World’ lest they risk being ousted as an enemy of ‘the people’.
Chief amongst those critics of the American president is the national press. In a country run by an administration agitating through constructive ambiguity and the denunciation of critical voices, a confirmatory bias has emerged that pits Trump-supporters against Trump’s conceived ‘other’. The failure of the Mueller Report to bring about a change in the administration was not down to an absence of unequivocal calls for impeachment — anyone could read between the lines of what Mueller was getting at — but its mitigated reception; its watering down by Attorney General William Barr; and Trump’s docile followers, of which two thirds of Republicans intend on supporting Trump in next year’s Republican primary.
But it is Trump’s adoption of rhetoric denouncing a Lügenpresse, or ‘the lying press’, which distinguishes Trump’s America from democratic Austria. As the rallying point for parties across the Austrian political spectrum to oust the FPÖ, the work of the independent press was expressly praised by Austrian President van der Bellen, which the FPÖ wished to subvert through Strache’s dealings with a Russian backer. A non-partisan respect for the freedom of the press in Austria is clearly a signal of a healthy democracy, where the country has shunned Strache and his accomplice Johann Gudenus – puppets of a Kremlin-backed Eurosceptic, illiberal agenda.
In Austria, at least, Kurz called it on the populists: “Enough is enough.” With German comedian Jan Böhmermann widely considered to have leaked the video to the press just a week before the EU parliamentary elections, the far-right’s rhetorical success in government has been shown to be a satirical failure and a stark warning for those flirting with Brexit party-types at the polls this Thursday. As Merkel put it, these “politicians for sale” aren’t worth Europe’s time; it’s time to consider whether any ’man of the people’ will bring back democracy to the U.K. or simply undermine it.