Fake Polls And Tabloid Coverage On Demand: The Dark Side Of Sebastian Kurju – World Latest News Headlines

Vienna – It sounded like a miracle. For years the Austrian Conservative Party was far behind its rivals. Then in May 2017, the polls took a spectacular turn, allowing conservatives to convince voters that they had a real chance of winning. Five months after the election, they did.

The miracle was attributed to Sebastian Kurz. only 31, well prepared And with cultured, thin hair and even social media slogans, he became Austria’s youngest chancellor and formed a far-right government.

elected in the same year President Donald J. Trump takes office, Mr Kurz seen as One’s poster boy in Europe Ascending rights for the new generation, a political crook who saved conservatism by borrowing, pushing and mainstreaming a far-right agenda.

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 cult-devout allies worked in one of Austria’s biggest tabloids to ensure favorable news coverage. did. have paid. Prosecutors say that once in power, he institutionalized the system to use taxpayer money to increase his popularity and punish journalists and media outlets who criticized him.

“What voters saw was not real,” said former editor-turned-legislator Helmut Brandstetter, whom Mr. Kurz threatened and pressured to quit his job. “It was a plan to influence elections and undermine democracy.” Was.”

“The image of a perfect politician, it was all fake,” Brandstetter said. “The real Sebastian Kurz is no more sinister.”

Mr. Kurz, Joe stepped down as chancellor on 9 October, has denied any wrongdoing and is not charged with any crime, but is being investigated for bribery and embezzlement. their The collapse has resonated 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 highlighted 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 one million euros – disguised as classified ads.

“Kurz has used many of the same methods as other national populists,” said Natasha Strobl, author of “Radical Conservatism,” a book about the shift in authority from 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 Thomas Schmid, one of Mr Kurz’s closest aides and friends, detail underground equipment to 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 first had to handle his party.

So he began 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 would have been undermined on the Conservative Party, saying “everything is better” with Mr Kurz.

“Given the reluctance inside the party, Sebastian Kurz had to proceed with his plan in secret,” writes the prosecutor, noting that the plan “would cost significantly, and this made financing unavoidable.”

Mr. Schmid had access to the funds in the Ministry of Finance. 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 didn’t appear in official accounts, prosecutors say.

The mechanism they devised was simple: with Mr. Kurz’s help, Mr. Schmid recruited the conservative Families Minister, who had previously run a polling station.

One of his former colleagues with close ties to Sterrich’s bosses was put in charge of the voting. Mr. Kurz’s aides set questions to ask. He then selected favorable outcomes and often pushed them in support of Mr. Kurz’s leadership bid. Stereich was told when and how to write classified ads in lieu of regular placements.

There were some initial hurdles.

In June 2016, when Wolfgang and Helmuth Fellner, the 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 totally understand,” wrote Wolfgang Fellner back, “now I’m doing a complete double page about voting on Wednesday. OK?”

In December of the same year, Mr. Schmid transmitted some better news to Mr. Kurz in a chat message. Another poll recently made headlines, showing conservatives at a record low of 18 percent, further downplaying Mr Kurz’s rival.

“Thank you! Nice 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: “Switching to Kurz Will Benefit Conservatives.”

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 have never gone as far as we are going,” Mr Schmid wrote. “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 three weeks, had elevated Mr. Kurz to the leadership position.

It was then that 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 the Courier, a broadsheet newspaper.

“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 had run his campaign on immigration borders and Austrian identity, gave a youthful atmosphere 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 the elections and placed government advertisements with Sterrich 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. One old video surfaced The most senior minister of the far-right Freedom Party in Mr Kurz’s coalition is shown 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 it clear what the right wing was set to do. The Austrians did not know that they had a conservative chancellor. actually doing.

An investigation of the video will eventually lead prosecutors to the target of Mr. Kurz and his praetorian.

After the video scandal surfaced, Mr Kurz swiftly ended his alliance with the far right.

He said, “Enough is enough.” “The idea of ​​using Austrian taxpayer money and of course abusing the understanding of the media landscape in our country is serious and problematic.”

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 distant.

What did not change, however, was Mr. Kurz’s elaborate system of message control.

Last June, following criticism from conservatives of Mr Kurz by the Austrian magazine News, the Ministry of Finance canceled all of its classified ads – not just 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 critical 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. Lawmakers 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 recently published book, “The Kurz Reign.” “He is badly damaged and is unlikely to recover. But if he does, we should all worry.”