Vienna – It sounded like a miracle. For years the Austrian Conservative Party was far behind its rivals. Then in May 2017, the polls reversed spectacularly, giving conservatives new credibility by helping them convince voters that they have a real chance of winning. Five months later, in the elections, he did.
The miracle was attributed to Sebastian Kurz. Only 31, well-dressed and well-mannered, with thin hair and even social media slogans, he became Austria’s youngest chancellor and government with the farthest.
In the same year, elected President Donald J. Trump took office, Mr Kurz was seen in Europe as the poster boy of an ascending authority for a new generation, a political wunderkind who had eschewed conservatism by borrowing a far-right agenda. and bring it into the mainstream.
It seemed too good to be true. And, it turns out, it was.
Prosecutors now say that many of the polls prior to that election were falsified and that Mr Kurz and a small group of allies with cult devotion to him used one of Austria’s biggest tabloids to ensure favorable news coverage. paid. Prosecutors say that once in power, he institutionalized the system by using taxpayer money to increase the appearance of his popularity and punish journalists and media outlets who criticized him.
“What voters saw was not real,” said Helmut Brandstetter, a former newspaper editor-turned-legislator who was bullied and pressured by Mr Kurz to quit his job. “It was a plan to influence elections and undermine democracy.”
“The image of the perfect politician, it was all fake,” said Mr Brandstetter. “The real Sebastian Kurz is no more sinister.”
Mr Kurz, who stepped down as chancellor on 9 October, has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crimes, but his investigation for bribery and embezzlement continues. His downfall echoed across Europe, where many of the traditional centre-right parties he once inspired are now in crisis.
In a month when journalists won the Nobel Prize for holding governments accountable, the Austria scandal has shed light on a clearly symbiotic relationship between populists, right-wing leaders and sympathetic sections of the news media.
Prosecutors say Mr Kurz bought Austria’s third-largest tabloid with a bribe of more than a million euros – disguised as classified ads.
“Kurz has used many of the same methods as other national populists,” said Natasha Stroble, author of “Radicalized Conservatism,” a book about the shift to the right of traditional conservatives. “Corrupt collusion with friendly media and attempts to silence critical journalists is part of the toolbox.”
Prosecutors called Mr Kurz a “central figure” in an elaborate scheme to manipulate public opinion that involved several members of his inner circle, as well as two pollsters and two owners of the tabloid Osterreich.
The case against him reads like a political thriller. In 104 pages obtained by The New York Times, prosecutors carefully documented a secret plan to manipulate public opinion to win power and then tighten their grip.
Chat exchanges recovered from the cellphone of one of Mr Kurz’s closest aides and friends, Thomas Schmid, detail the underground device of rigged opinion polls and buy media coverage.
Mr. Schmid held several senior positions in the Ministry of Finance and accompanied Mr. Kurz on foot. He was one of a handful of loyal supporters who called themselves “praetorians” after the elite protector of the Roman emperors.
His devotion seemed complete. “You are my hero!” Mr. Schmid wrote to Mr. Kurz in one of his many exchanges, and in another, “I am one of your praetorians who does not create problems but solves them.”
Mr Kurz’s problem in 2016 was that he was not the leader of his conservative People’s Party. He was foreign minister in the unpopular coalition government led by the centre-left Social Democrats. To become chancellor, he had to first manage his own party.
So he started planning with Praetorian.
The plan he prepared after the Chancellor’s address in Vienna was called “Operation Ballhausplatz”. A document ranging from “preparation” to “acquisition” described how Mr Kurz’s rival over the Conservative Party may have been undermined by saying “everything is better” under Mr Kurz’s leadership.
“Given the reluctance inside the party, Sebastian Kurz had to proceed with his plan in secret,” the prosecutor writes, noting that the plan “would incur considerable costs, and this made financing unavoidable.”
Mr. Schmidt had access to funds in the finance ministry. He ensured that Mr. Kurz’s media budget at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received a significant boost, And they found ways to invoice for secret ballots that weren’t visible in official accounts, prosecutors say.
The mechanism he devised was simple: with Mr. Kurz’s help, Mr. Schmid recruited the conservative Family Minister, who had previously run a polling station.
One of his former associates with close ties to the owners of sterreich was put in charge of the voting. Mr. Kurz’s aides set questions to ask. He then selected favorable outcomes and frequently changed them more in support of Mr. Kurz’s leadership bid. sterreich was told when and how to write them in exchange for regular placement of classified ads.
There were some initial hurdles.
In June 2016, when Wolfgang and Helmuth Fellner, brothers whose family owns Osterreich, failed to deliver an article about a favorable survey for Mr Kurz, Mr. Schmid went ballistic: “We are really crazy!!!! MEGA CRAZY.”
“I completely understand,” wrote Wolfgang Fellner back, “now I’m doing a full double page about voting on Wednesday. OK?”
In December of that year, Mr Schmid sent Mr Kurz some better news in a chat message. Another poll recently made headlines, showing conservatives at a record low of 18 percent, further undermining Mr Kurz’s rival.
“Thank you! Good vote,” replied Mr. Kurz.
Over time, the system was perfected. In January 2017, sterreich published not only a poll, but an interview with pollster, Sabine Benschbach, and used one of her quotes as the headline: “Conservatives would benefit from switching to Kurz.”
It was a line that was fed to him by the Praetorians.
“I interviewed Beinshaab yesterday,” said Johannes Frischmann, a spokesman for the finance minister and another member of Mr Kurz’s inner circle, who reported back to Mr Schmidt, who responded with a clapping emoji.
“I’ve never been as far away as we are,” wrote Mr. Schmid. “Great investment. Fellner is a capitalist. If you pay, things get done. I love it.”
In early May, the conservative leader resigned and Mr Kurz was swiftly named his successor. Almost immediately his party took off in the elections, and within a span of three weeks, elevated Mr. Kurz to a position of leadership.
This was when Mr Kurz actively called for meetings to put pressure on the more critical journalists. In June 2017, he had dinner with Mr. Brandstetter, who was then the editor-in-chief of one of the broadsheet newspapers, Courier.
“Why don’t you like me?” Mr Kurz was asked repeatedly, Mr Brandstetter recalled in an interview.
“You must decide whether you are my friend or my enemy,” said Mr. Kurz.
Mr Kurz won the election comfortably in October 2017. He mounted his campaign on immigration limits and Austrian identity, giving a youthful vibe to a far-right agenda – and then invited it into the government.
In the 17 months that followed, he turned a blind eye to the many racist and anti-Semitic crimes of his coalition partners. When journalists like Mr Brandstetter reported on him, he received calls from Mr Kurz or a member of his detailed communications team.
“I get these calls all the time,” recalled Mr. Brandstetter. “Then he called the bosses and then the bosses called me.”
A year after Mr Kurz took office, his newspaper leaned on Mr Brandstetter to step down from his job and become publisher instead, a role with no editorial control. He is now an MLA of the Liberal Neos Party.
Meanwhile, prosecutors say, Mr Schmid continued to pay for elections and placed government advertisements with sterreich in exchange for favorable coverage. From mid-2016 to the first quarter of 2018, prosecutors said, those ads were valued at at least 1.1 million euros, or about $1.3 million.
Then in May 2019, one of Austria’s biggest post-war scandals broke out. An old video surfaced showing the most senior minister of the far-right Freedom Party in Mr Kurz’s coalition promising a government contract to a potential Russian investor in exchange for favorable coverage in the famous Austrian tabloid Kronen Zeitung.
It turned out to be a setup. But the video made clear what the right wing was ready to do. The Austrians didn’t know they had a conservative chancellor. actually doing.
An investigation of the video will eventually bring prosecutors the focus of Mr. Kurz and his praetorian.
After the video scandal surfaced, Mr Kurz swiftly ended his alliance with the far right.
He said, “That’s enough.” “Serious and problematic is the idea of abusing power, using Austrian taxpayer money and of course an understatement of the media landscape in our country.”
Mr Kurz won re-election and this time entered into a coalition with the Progressive Greens, a change that allowed him to remove the stain of his association with the far right.
What did not change, however, was Mr. Kurz’s elaborate system of message control.
Last June, after the Austrian magazine News wrote a critical article about Mr Kurz’s conservatives, the Ministry of Finance canceled all its classified ads – not only in News, but all 15 titles owned by the VGN publishing group. In.
The loss was about 200,000 euros, VGN chief executive Horst Pirkar said.
“All governments tried to expose the important media,” Mr Pirkar explained in an interview. “But Kurz took it to a whole new dimension.”
Mr Kurz, who remains the leader of the conservative party, is still hoping to return as chancellor. He has attacked the justice system, accusing prosecutors of being politically motivated. MPs loyal to him speak of “red cells” and “left-wing networks”, a kind of “deep position” that fights conservatism.
“It’s straight out of the conservative playbook,” said Peter Pilz, author of “The Kurz Regime,” a recently published book. “He is badly damaged and is unlikely to recover. But if he does, we should all worry.”