VIENNA – It looked like a miracle. For years, the Austrian Conservative Party languished far behind its rivals. Then, in May 2017, the polls reversed dramatically, giving the Conservatives a newfound credibility that helped them convince voters that they had a real chance of winning. Five months later, in the election, they did.
The man credited with the miracle was Sebastian Kurz. At just 31, well dressed and well behaved, with sleek hair and even sleeker slogans on social media, he became Austria’s youngest chancellor and formed a government with the far right.
Elected the same year President Donald J. Trump took office, Kurz was quickly seen in Europe as the poster child for a rising right for a new generation, a political prodigy who had saved conservatism by borrowing the agenda of the far right, improving it. and bring it into the mainstream.
It sounded too good to be true. And, it turns out it was.
Prosecutors now say many polls leading up to this election were falsified and that Mr Kurz and a small cabal of allies with sectarian devotion to him paid one of Austria’s biggest tabloids to ensure favorable media coverage. Once in power, prosecutors say, he institutionalized the system, using taxpayer dollars to enhance the appearance of his own popularity and punish journalists and media outlets who criticized him.
“What voters saw was not real,” said Helmut Brandstätter, a former newspaper editor turned lawmaker who was bullied by Mr Kurz and forced to quit his job. “It was a ploy to influence the elections and undermine democracy. “
“The image of the perfect politician was all wrong,” said Brandstätter. “The real Sebastian Kurz is a much more sinister person.”
Mr Kurz, who stepped down as chancellor on October 9, has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime, but is still under investigation for corruption and embezzlement. His fall reverberated across Europe, where many of the traditional center-right parties he once inspired are now in crisis.
In a month when journalists won a Nobel Prize for holding governments to account, the Austrian scandal shed light on the clearly symbiotic relationship between populist and right-wing leaders and sympathetic parts of the media.
According to prosecutors, Mr Kurz bought Austria’s third-largest tabloid with more than a million euros in bribes, disguised as classified ads.
“Kurz used many of the same methods as other national populists,” said Natascha Strobl, author of “Radicalized Conservaism,” a book on the right turn of mainstream conservatives. “Corrupt collusion with friendly media and the attempt to silence critical journalists is part of the toolbox. “
Prosecutors call Mr Kurz “the central figure” in an elaborate ploy to manipulate public opinion which included several members of his entourage, as well as two pollsters and two owners of the Österreich tabloid.
The case against him reads like a political thriller. In 104 pages, obtained by The New York Times, prosecutors meticulously document a secret plan to manipulate public opinion into power and then consolidate their grip.
The underground tool of buying rigged opinion polls and media coverage is described in remarkable detail in chat conversations retrieved from the cell phone of one of Mr. Kurz’s closest allies and friends, Thomas Schmid .
Mr. Schmid has held a series of senior positions in the Ministry of Finance and has hiked with Mr. Kurz. He was one of a handful of staunch supporters who called themselves the “Praetorians,” after the elite guard of the Roman Emperors.
Their dedication was apparently absolute. “YOU ARE MY HERO!” Mr Schmid wrote to Mr Kurz in one of their many exchanges, and in another: “I am one of your Praetorians who does not create problems but solves them.
The problem Mr Kurz had in 2016 was that he was not the leader of his conservative People’s Party. He was foreign minister in an unpopular coalition government led by the center-left Social Democrats. To become chancellor, he first had to take charge of his own party.
So he started plotting with the Praetorians.
The plan they came up with was called “Operation Ballhausplatz” – after the speech from the Chancellery in Vienna. One document describes from “readiness” to “takeover” how Mr Kurz’s top Tory rival could be undermined by polls saying “everything is better” with Mr Kurz at the helm.
“Given the reluctance within the party, Sebastian Kurz had to pursue his plan secretly,” write prosecutors, noting that the plan “would entail considerable costs, which also made the concealment of funding inevitable.”
Mr. Schmid, at the Ministry of Finance, had access to money. He made sure that Mr Kurz’s media budget at the Foreign Ministry was significantly increased, and he found ways to charge for the secret ballot that did not appear in official accounts, prosecutors said.
The mechanism he devised was simple: With the help of Mr Kurz, Mr Schmid recruited the conservative Minister for Families, who had previously headed a polling institute.
One of his former associates with close ties to the owners of Österreich was in charge of the poll. Mr. Kurz’s allies dictated the questions to be asked. They then selected favorable results and often modified them further to support Mr Kurz’s leadership bid. Österreich learned when and how to write them in exchange for regular classifieds placements.
There were a few hiccups at the start.
In June 2016, when Wolfgang and Helmuth Fellner, brothers whose family owns Österreich, failed to publish an article about a poll favorable to Mr. Kurz, Mr. Schmid has gone ballistic: “We are really crazy !!!! Mega crazy.
“I fully understand,” replied Wolfgang Fellner, “I am now doing a full spread on Wednesday’s poll. Okay?”
In December of the same year, Mr. Schmid delivered better news to Mr. Kurz in a chat message. Another poll had just hit the headlines showing the Tories at an all-time high of 18%, further undermining Mr Kurz’s rival.
“Thanks! Have a nice poll,” replied Mr. Kurz.
Over time, the system has improved. In January 2017, Österreich published not only a poll, but an interview with pollster Sabine Beinschab, and used one of her quotes as the headline: Conservatives ‘Would Better to Switch to Kurz’.
It was a line that had been transmitted to him by the Praetorians.
“I told Beinschab yesterday what to say in the interview,” Johannes Frischmann, spokesperson for the finance minister and another member of Mr Kurz’s inner circle, told Mr Schmid, who responded with a clapping emoji.
“I have never gone as far as we are going,” Mr Schmid wrote. “Excellent investment. Fellner is a capitalist. If you pay, things get done. I love it.”
At the beginning of May, the Conservative leader had resigned and Mr Kurz was quickly appointed as his successor. Almost immediately, his party took off in the polls and, within three weeks, catapulted Mr. Kurz into the lead.
It was around this time that Mr Kurz also actively sought out meetings to lobby the most critical journalists. In June 2017, he had dinner with Mr Brandstätter, then editor-in-chief of Kurier, one of the broadsheet newspapers.
“Why don’t you love me? Mr. Kurz had asked several times, recalls Mr. Brandstätter in an interview.
“You have to decide whether you are my friend or my enemy,” Mr Kurz said.
Mr Kurz comfortably won the elections in October 2017. He had led his campaign on the limits of immigration and Austrian identity, giving a youthful polish to much of the far-right agenda – then l ‘inviting the government.
Over the next 17 months, he turned a blind eye to the many racist and anti-Semitic transgressions by his coalition partners. When journalists, like Mr. Brandstätter, reported on them, they would receive phone calls from Mr. Kurz or from a member of his extensive communications team.
“I get these calls all the time,” recalls Brandstätter. “Then he called the owners, then the owners called me. “
A year after Mr. Kurz took office, his newspaper relied on Mr. Brandstätter to quit his job and instead become an editor, a role without editorial control. He is now a member of the libertarian party Neos.
Meanwhile, prosecutors said, Mr Schmid continued to pay for polls and placed government announcements with Österreich in return for favorable coverage. Between mid-2016 and the first quarter of 2018, prosecutors said the value of those ads was at least 1.1 million euros, or about $ 1.3 million.
Then, in May 2019, one of Austria’s biggest post-war scandals erupted. An old video has surfaced showing the top minister of the far-right Freedom Party in Mr Kurz’s coalition pledging government contracts to a potential Russian investor in return for favorable coverage in a well-known Austrian tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung.
It turned out to be a setup. But the video made it clear what the far right was prepared to do. What the Austrians did not know was that their conservative chancellor was doing it.
The video investigation would eventually put prosecutors on the trail of Mr Kurz and his praetorians.
After the video scandal exploded, Mr Kurz quickly ended his coalition with the far right.
“Enough is enough,” he said. “What is serious and problematic is the idea of abusing power, using Austrian taxpayers’ money and of course understanding our country’s media landscape.”
Mr Kurz was re-elected and this time entered a coalition with the Progressive Greens, a change which gave him the chance to wipe out the stain of his association with the far right.
What hasn’t changed, however, is Mr. Kurz’s elaborate message control system.
Last June, after Austrian magazine News wrote a critical article on Mr Kurz’s Tories, the Finance Ministry canceled all of its classifieds – not just in News, but in the 15 titles owned by the publishing group VGN.
The loss was around 200,000 euros, said Horst Pirker, Managing Director of VGN.
“All governments have tried to get the support of the major media,” Pirker said in an interview. “But Kurz took him to a new dimension.”
Mr Kurz, who remains the leader of the Conservative Party, still hopes to return as Chancellor. He lashed out at the justice system, accusing prosecutors of being politically motivated. Lawmakers who are loyal to him speak of “red blood cells” and “leftist networks”, a sort of “deep state” fighting against conservatism.
“It’s straight out of the illiberal playbook,” said Peter Pilz, author of “The Kurz Regime,” a recently published book. “He’s badly damaged and is unlikely to recover. But if he does, we should all be concerned.