He had been filmed offering public contracts to a woman in exchange for hidden gifts to her party. Heinz-Christian Strache, the former leader of the Austrian far right, was sentenced on Friday August 27 by the Vienna court to fifteen months suspended prison sentence in a corruption case known as the “Ibizagate”. “The chronology of events leaves no room for doubt”, declared Judge Claudia Moravec-Loidolt at the end of the trial.
During the debates, which were held for four days in early July before resuming this week, Mr. Strache systematically denied any wrongdoing. “I have never received any favors in my life, I acted out of conviction”, he said.
The former president of the powerful Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and vice-chancellor (2017-2019) saw his fate change in May 2019: a video shot with a hidden camera two years earlier on the Spanish island Ibiza then leaked to the press. We see him offering public contracts, to the detriment of one of the Austrian industrial jewels, the Strabag, to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch. In exchange, the young woman will have to finance the FPÖ and enter the capital of the tabloid Kronen Zeitung (first draw of the country), in order to make it a title favorable to the far-right party. The sequence has the effect of an explosion, causing the bursting of the coalition uniting the FPÖ and the conservatives Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and early elections.
On the legal front, the episode leads to the launch of all-out investigations against several influential officials. It is in this context that Mr. Strache’s cell phone is seized and that investigators discover compromising text messages.
Series of scandals
According to the prosecution, he intervened to change the law so that a private clinic is attached to social security. The legislation will eventually be changed once the far right has come to power, allowing the establishment to benefit from public funds. In return, the head of this clinic, Walter Grubmüller, would have invited the politician to Greece and paid 10,000 euros to his party. For his part, he was sentenced to a suspended 12-month prison sentence. During the trial, a second donation to the FPÖ, in the amount of 2,000 euros, was revealed. Mr. Strache denies having traveled to Corfu after becoming vice-chancellor and assures that he was not aware in advance of the payment of such sums.
Since its shattering resignation in the wake of the scandal, other revelations came to overwhelm the former number two in the government. Mr Strache is thus accused of having embezzled more than half a million euros from the FPÖ funds to finance his luxurious lifestyle during his fourteen years at the head of the party. Claiming to be the victim of a defamation campaign, he attempted, without success, a comeback in the municipal elections in Vienna in October 2020.
For its part, the FPÖ, undermined by divisions, went from 26% at the polls in 2017 to just 16% in 2019. It recently had a new leader, the former Minister of the Interior Herbert Kickl, known for his rhetoric hostile to Islam and migrants.
Long above the fray, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who now forged an alliance with the Greens, meanwhile was caught by the courts in May. The ambitious Wunderkind (“Child prodigy”) is the target of an investigation into suspicion of false testimony before a parliamentary commission of inquiry into acts of corruption, set up in the wake of the “Ibizagate”. The young leader, who turns 35 on Friday, dismissed any misconduct and said he would not resign, even in the event of an indictment.