The scandal in Austria surrounding former Vice Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache highlights the ease with which the abuse of power and manipulation of political landscapes can happen, even in countries considered to have low levels of corruption, Transparency International said today. The global anti-corruption coalition urged greater transparency around public procurement, tighter regulations on political party financing and coordinated action against money-laundering.
The hidden-camera video of Strache obtained by Süddeutsche Zeitung and Der Spiegel, appears to show him offering a woman who claimed to be the niece of a Russian oligarch preferential access to lucrative and inflated public contracts, suggesting avenues for money laundering, and soliciting 'dark money' donations to his political party. The woman, who was part of an undercover operation, said she was buying a controlling stake in Kronen Zeitung, Austria's biggest-selling tabloid newspaper, and would use the outlet to promote Strache's far-right FPÖ party.
“The Strache video exemplifies how corrupt politicians regard public contracts as a bartering tool that can be used to pay back political favours. Around the world, public contracts for infrastructure projects are one of the areas most susceptible to corruption,” said Patricia Moreira, Managing Director of Transparency International. “This is precisely why we need to see more multi-stakeholder oversight of procurement, including civil society and citizens, transparent contracting data, and proportional punishment for corrupt politicians.”
The Strache video also shows how legal loopholes can be exploited to secretly funnel money to political parties. In the video, Strache suggested that the woman make a donation to the FPÖ through an 'association' to disguise its origin, and claimed that several wealthy individuals currently use this method to donate to Austrian parties. The individuals named deny his claim.
Bettina Knoetzl, the President of the Advisory Board of Transparency International's Austrian Chapter (TI-AC), said: “TI-AC has repeatedly demanded that the Austrian law on political parties be rewritten to create a more effective corruption prevention regime. Moreover, recent developments show the need for a fully independent WKStA, the Austrian special prosecutor’s office against corruption and white collar crime.”
Patricia Moreira added: “The corrupt scheme discussed in the video centred on taking control of a major media outlet and using it as a mouthpiece for the FPÖ. Strache admiringly used Hungary as an example for how media could be captured to subvert the role it plays in holding politicians to account. This highlights the intense pressure that free and independent media is under globally. Where journalists are unable to hold politicians to account, we see corruption flourishing.”
Transparency International stressed that the Strache video should not be seen as an isolated incident limited to individual politicians, parties, or countries. It points to systemic corruption issues common to many parts of the world. Global and regional initiatives, such as the G20, and multilateral organisations, such as the IMF and World Bank, must continue to push for coordinated action against corruption from national governments, including enforcement of existing laws and regulations.
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