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Sebastian Kurz, a political wunderkind who grew to become Austria’s chief at simply 31, rose to energy by cultivating a youthful, do-gooder picture that endeared him to younger and outdated alike.

After which he went rogue.

A cache of personal textual content messages between the center-right chancellor and his deputies and different correspondence uncovered by Austrian authorities as a part of a sweeping investigation into political corruption portrays Kurz not because the well-mannered “favourite son-in-law of the nation” who captured the guts of his compatriots and far of the EU, however fairly as a shrewd behind-the-scenes operator prepared to do no matter it takes to push by way of his agenda, whether or not coping with the Catholic Church, doling out political favors or taking over rivals.

Whereas the exchanges provide a uncommon, unfiltered glimpse at how politicians function behind the scenes, what in addition they reveal (except for Kurz’s penchant for coronary heart emojis and exclamation marks) is what veteran Austrian political commentator Peter Filzmaier described because the “unbelievable banality of the individuals who lead our republic.”

“Don’t fear! You’re household,” Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, considered one of Kurz’s closest deputies, texted a fellow loyalist in an effort to reassure the person that he could be taken care of with a plum job.

Such techniques, even when they evoke a foul mafia movie, are hardly shocking in political circles. However Kurz, who refashioned Austria’s staid conservative occasion root and department after taking it over in 2017, altering every thing from its title to its coloration (from black to turquoise), was alleged to be completely different. He didn’t simply promise to revolutionize the nation’s politics: He satisfied Austrians he was severe. And so they purchased it.

Kurz, who leads the Austrian Folks’s Occasion, shouldn’t be a direct topic of the corruption investigations, which embody allegations of every thing from bribery to violating official secrecy legal guidelines, however they’ve touched his internal circle. Maybe much more damaging to Kurz in the long run, nonetheless, is that the textual content exchanges have all however destroyed the general public persona he constructed as a fresh-faced millennial politician who would put an finish to the clubby machine-style politics that dominated Austria’s postwar historical past.

Removed from drawing a line underneath that period, Kurz has erected what critics have dubbed the “Home of Kurz,” a close-knit community of the chancellor’s loyalists within the authorities, personal sector and media who quietly collaborate to their mutual profit.

As an alternative of the “new model” Kurz promised, commentator Ruth Wodak wrote this week, Austrians are studying that “something goes.”

Kurz’s metamorphosis may sound like a well-recognized coming-of-age political story, however at a time when a lot of Central Europe has slipped right into a type of comfortable authoritarianism, Kurz’s transformation and the bigger corruption scandal engulfing Austria’s political class counsel that the erosion of democratic norms within the area threatens to unfold into Western Europe.

That will mark a considerable setback for the European Union, which is already struggling to deal with recalcitrant governments in Hungary and Poland over steps they’ve taken to undermine each the unbiased judiciary and the media. Just like the leaders of these international locations, Kurz has not shied away from attacking the EU to deflect from his home woes. Simply final week, he led an unsuccessful try, joined by the Czech Republic and Slovenia, to win a bigger allotment of vaccines from the EU, a quixotic effort extensively dismissed as a political stunt.

It wasn’t way back that many in Brussels noticed Kurz not as a menace, however as conservative Europe’s future. Europe’s center-right, the dominant political bloc within the European parliament, was enamored by the brash younger Austrian, whose robust stance on migration many considered as a mannequin for conservative events throughout the Continent. He was notably common in Germany, the place Kurz wooed the media, specifically the influential Bild tabloid. Some even noticed in Kurz the usual bearer for the post-Merkel period.

No extra.

The corruption probes that uncovered the personal textual content site visitors had been triggered by the so-called Ibiza Affair, a scandal that exploded in 2019 after the discharge of a video exhibiting the far-right chief who grew to become Kurz’s coalition associate providing to commerce political favors for money throughout a boozy session with a girl he believed to be the daughter of a Russian oligarch. Kurz survived the quick scandal unscathed, although it felled his coalition associate, forcing a brand new election that resulted in his present coalition with Austria’s Greens. Within the meantime, the authorities’ authentic Ibiza investigation has led them to the chancellor’s internal circle.

On line casino royale

On the middle of the corruption investigation is the connection between Austrian on line casino operators and public officers. Former Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, the person featured within the notorious Ibiza footage, claimed on the tape that one of many corporations, Novomatic, “pays everybody.” In different phrases, he alleged that the corporate funnels cash to the entire nation’s political events in return for favors, an accusation the corporate and the political events strenuously deny.

In the midst of investigating that declare, nonetheless, investigators came across a textual content despatched in 2017 by the previous head of Novomatic to Kurz ally Blümel, the present finance minister. The Novomatic government, Harald Neumann, advised Blümel he wanted a gathering with Kurz, then nonetheless Austria’s overseas minister, to debate “for one, a donation and for an additional an issue now we have in Italy.”

Blümel and Kurz say the assembly by no means occurred and no donation was ever made. (The Italy reference was in reference to a tax dispute Novomatic confronted there.)

Kurz portrayed the investigation, led by Austria’s monetary crimes prosecutor, as deeply flawed.

“So many errors have been made that I believe there’s an pressing want for change there,” Kurz mentioned in February, drawing the ire of Austria’s judges and prosecutors, who accused him of creating an unprecedented assault on the judiciary’s independence.

If Kurz hoped his interventions would trigger prosecutors to step again, he was disillusioned. If something, they elevated the strain, exploring accusations — denied by these concerned — {that a} senior justice official loyal to Kurz secretly funneled Blümel’s camp details about the investigation.

Prosecutors have named Blümel a suspect of their bribery investigation, sparking opposition cries for his resignation, which he has rejected. He denies any wrongdoing.

As typically occurs in broad investigations into politicians’ dealings, the Austrian probe has taken authorities in sudden instructions.

‘I like my chancellor’

One includes a person named Thomas Schmid, the top of a state holding firm that manages Austria’s stakes in former state-owned enterprises together with Telekom Austria and OMV, the oil and gasoline firm. Along with Blümel, Schmid belongs to a close-knit group of devoted Kurz lieutenants who’ve labored with the chancellor since his early days in politics.

In analyzing the texts on Schmid’s cellphone, authorities found how the chief gained his prime place at Austria’s state holding firm, ÖBAG, the place he earns, relying on the portfolio’s efficiency, as much as €600,000 per yr.

Not solely did Schmid — till 2018 a senior official in Austria’s finance ministry — have a hand in writing the job description for the submit, he additionally hand-picked the board that might rent him. Schmid had by no means labored as a company government and had no worldwide expertise, components that may, underneath different circumstances, have dashed his probabilities of heading a holding firm overseeing company investments totaling €26 billion. However Schmid had one thing else: a robust ally named Sebastian Kurz.

After months of engineering his transfer, Schmid sought assurances from Kurz that his new job would carry actual energy and never simply be ceremonial.

“You’re getting every thing you need 😘😘😘,” Kurz reassured Schmid in a textual content message in March of 2019.

“🙂🙂🙂 I’m so completely satisfied…I like my chancellor ,” Schmid responded.

Following public outcry over the affair, Schmid mentioned on Tuesday that he would resign from the state holding firm when his contract expires subsequent yr and never train an choice to increase it by two years.

Austria’s opposition is demanding an investigation into whether or not Schmid broke any legal guidelines in securing the job. Each he and Kurz, who declined to remark for this text, deny any wrongdoing.

“What we will see is that the ‘Kurz System’ was designed from the start to take management of state establishments and to create a state inside the state,” mentioned Kai Jan Krainer, the parliamentary chief of the opposition Social Democrats.

Church and state

It appears extra probably that Kurz was merely rewarding an ally for his loyalty. Through the years, Schmid had taken on any variety of off-the-books assignments for Kurz, individuals who have labored with the 2 males say. Simply weeks earlier than Schmid obtained the large state holding job, he helped the chancellor with a fragile matter involving the Catholic Church.

After an area civil servant was stabbed to demise by a Turkish refugee in western Austria in early 2019, Kurz endorsed a tricky new legislation to permit authorities to position asylum seekers deemed “harmful” in preventive custody.

However Catholic leaders, led by the favored archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, opposed the concept, publicly evaluating it to the techniques utilized by repressive regimes. “Each dictatorship on the earth locks folks up out of easy distrust,” Schönborn wrote in a newspaper column. “Tomorrow it could be you or me.”

Kurz inspired Schimd to “step on the gasoline” with a plan to exert strain on the church. “We’re going to depart them with a substantial bundle,” Schmid texted him forward of a gathering with a senior church official.

Schmid went on to clarify he would inform his church counterpart that “within the context of reviewing all tax privileges throughout the republic, the finance ministry goes to take a really shut have a look at the church.” Each males knew that for the church, which might have issue working with out preferential tax remedy, the menace was the equal of the nuclear choice.

Kurz’s response: “Sure, tremendous.”

A number of hours later, Schmid reported again to Kurz on the assembly, writing that the church official was “a basket case” after receiving the menace. The person “turned purple then pale after which began shaking,” Schmid wrote to his boss.

“Tremendous, thanks a lot!!!!,” Kurz replied.

Regardless of Kurz’s obvious elation, the tactic didn’t work. Schönborn, the cardinal, continued to lambaste the proposed asylum coverage, calling it “inhuman.”

Simply weeks after Schmid’s church go to, Kurz’s authorities collapsed amid the Ibiza Affair. The asylum coverage by no means went into impact, although Kurz’s occasion remains to be pursuing it.

Past the scandals consuming away at Kurz’s credibility, the bigger query is whether or not he can survive as a political dangerous boy. Though his approval ranking has tanked in latest days, most observers are betting he’ll, given the weak point of the opposition.

“Since he took over the Folks’s Occasion in 2017, the query was whether or not that is simply intelligent advertising and marketing or is one thing actually going to vary,” Filzmaier mentioned.

No less than Austrians now have the reply.

Nette Nöstlinger contributed reporting.

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