The collapse of Austria’s government is reason for celebration. At no point in the past few decades had the government of a West European country damaged the basic rules and norms of liberal democracy more quickly, or more thoroughly. Anybody who cares about the survival of the separation of powers, or the freedom of the press, should rejoice that the Freedom Party is no longer in power.
Some European politicians have gone even further. István Ujhelyi, a member of the beleaguered opposition in Hungary, for example, told The Guardian that Strache was merely the “first domino” to fall: “Next up are Salvini, Le Pen, Orbán and the rest of Moscow’s far-right puppets.” But far from heralding a reversal of the populist tide, as Ujhelyi seems to believe, the fall of the Freedom Party may yet turn out to reveal populism’s astounding resilience.
Read: A new right-wing movement rises in Austria
A few months before ascending to the second most powerful position in the Austrian government, Heinz-Christian Strache traveled to a luxury villa on the Spanish island of Ibiza to persuade a Russian billionaire to make illicit donations to his far-right Freedom Party. “There are a few very affluent people,” he says in the video, which was shot in the summer of 2017, and released by two German publications on Friday, “who are contributing between 500,000 and 2 million euros.”
A woman asks for the names of past donors. “Our donors usually are idealists,” Strache explains as his colleague Johann Gudenus, who would go on to lead the Freedom Party’s faction in the Austrian parliament, translates his remarks. “Gaston Glock,” for example.
The Russians do not understand. “Glock, Glock,” Strache repeats, as Gudenus mimics a man taking aim with a handgun.
This video set off an earthquake that equally serious past scandals had failed to provoke. Over the past years, newspapers had, again and again, reported on the Freedom Party’s dirty dealings, its close connections to Russia, and the remarkable number of xenophobes and anti-Semites in its midst. Each time, the party’s propagandists waved such revelations off as fake news. But when voters could see, with their own eyes, how cavalierly the soon-to-be vice chancellor of the Austrian Republic promised a Russian billionaire lucrative state contracts, that defense no longer seemed plausible. It became impossible for Austrians—and for Kurz in particular—to brush off the deep hypocrisy of a party that rails against corruption while making dodgy deals with shady supporters.
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In the wake of Kurz’s press conference, European commentators indulged in a rare moment of triumph. Across the continent, center-right leaders have been tempted to ally themselves with the far right. And while a few of them, such as Prime Minister Juha Sipilä of Finland, have mostly managed to co-opt their populist competitors by making them part of the government, far more have merely succeeded in emboldening the far right. Kurz’s travails can therefore serve as an urgently needed morality tale for politicians who hope to emulate his path to power: An alliance with the populist right can help you take office—but it could also lead to the sudden collapse of your government, and forevermore associate you with the stench of fraud.