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Fake Polls and Tabloid Coverage on Demand: The Dark Side of Sebastian Kurz

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VIENNA — It appeared like a miracle. For years, Austria’s conservative get together had languished far behind its rivals. Then in May 2017, the polls spectacularly reversed, giving the conservatives newfound credibility that helped them persuade voters that they’d an actual likelihood of profitable. Five months later, in elections, they did.

The man credited with the miracle was Sebastian Kurz. Only 31, well-dressed and well-mannered, with slick hair and even slicker social media slogans, he turned Austria’s youngest-ever chancellor and fashioned a authorities with the far proper.

Elected the identical yr President Donald J. Trump took workplace, Mr. Kurz was shortly seen in Europe because the poster boy of an ascendant proper for a brand new era, a political Wunderkind who had salvaged conservatism by borrowing the far proper’s agenda, buffing it up and bringing it into the mainstream.

It appeared too good to be true. And, it seems, it was.

Prosecutors now say that many polls earlier than that election have been falsified and that Mr. Kurz and a small cabal of allies with cultlike devotion to him paid off one of Austria’s largest tabloids to make sure favorable information protection. Once in energy, prosecutors say, he institutionalized the system, utilizing taxpayers’ cash to raise the looks of his personal reputation and punish journalists and media retailers that criticized him.

“What voters saw wasn’t real,” stated Helmut Brandstätter, a former newspaper editor turned lawmaker who was bullied by Mr. Kurz and pressured to depart his job. “It was a scheme to influence elections and undermine democracy.”

“The image of the perfect politician, it was all fake,” Mr. Brandstätter stated. “The real Sebastian Kurz is someone far more sinister.”

Mr. Kurz, who stepped down as chancellor on Oct. 9, has denied any wrongdoing and has not been charged with any crime, however he stays beneath investigation for bribery and embezzlement. His downfall has reverberated throughout Europe, the place many of the normal center-right events he as soon as impressed at the moment are in disaster.

In a month when journalists gained a Nobel Prize for holding governments to account, Austria’s scandal has put a highlight on the conspicuously symbiotic relationship between populist, right-wing leaders and sympathetic components of the information media.

Mr. Kurz, prosecutors say, purchased off Austria’s third-largest tabloid with over one million euros in bribes — disguised as labeled promoting.

“Kurz has used many of the same methods as other national populists,” stated Natascha Strobl, the writer of “Radicalized Conservatism,” a guide concerning the shift to the appropriate of conventional conservatives. “The corrupt collusion with friendly media and the attempt to silence critical journalists is part of the toolbox.”

Prosecutors name Mr. Kurz “the central figure” in an elaborate scheme to govern public opinion that included a number of members of his internal circle, in addition to two pollsters and two homeowners of the tabloid Österreich.

The case in opposition to him reads like a political thriller. In 104 pages, obtained by The New York Times, prosecutors meticulously doc a secret plan to govern public opinion so as to win energy and then cement their maintain.

The subterranean device of shopping for rigged opinion polling and media protection is printed in exceptional element in chat exchanges recovered from the cellphone of one of Mr. Kurz’s closest allies and associates, Thomas Schmid.

Mr. Schmid held a collection of senior posts within the Finance Ministry and went climbing with Mr. Kurz. He was one of a handful of loyal supporters who referred to as themselves the “praetorians,” after the elite guard of Roman emperors.

Their devotion was seemingly absolute. “YOU ARE MY HERO!” Mr. Schmid wrote to Mr. Kurz in a single of their many exchanges, and in one other, “I am one of your praetorians who doesn’t create problems but solves them.”

The drawback Mr. Kurz had in 2016 was that he was not the chief of his conservative People’s Party. He was international minister in an unpopular coalition authorities led by the center-left Social Democrats. In order to develop into chancellor, he needed to take over his personal get together first.

So he began scheming with the praetorians.

The plan they drew up was referred to as “Operation Ballhausplatz” — after the chancellery’s deal with in Vienna. One doc outlined from “preparation” to “takeover” how Mr. Kurz’s rival atop the conservative get together may very well be undermined with polls saying that “everything is better” with Mr. Kurz on the helm.

“Given the reluctance inside the party, Sebastian Kurz had to pursue his plan covertly,” prosecutors write, noting that the plan would “incur considerable costs, and that also made a cover-up of the financing inevitable.”

Mr. Schmid, within the Finance Ministry, had entry to cash. He made positive Mr. Kurz’s media price range within the Foreign Ministry bought a big enhance, and he discovered methods to bill for the covert polling that didn’t present up in official accounts, prosecutors say.

The mechanism he devised was easy: With Mr. Kurz’s assist, Mr. Schmid recruited the conservative household minister, who had beforehand run a polling institute.

One of her former associates with shut hyperlinks to the homeowners of Österreich was put in cost of the polling. Mr. Kurz’s allies dictated the inquiries to ask. They then chosen favorable outcomes and usually tweaked them additional in assist of Mr. Kurz’s management bid. Österreich was instructed when and easy methods to write them up in return for normal placements of labeled advertisements.

There have been some early hiccups.

In June 2016, when Wolfgang and Helmuth Fellner, brothers whose household owns Österreich, didn’t ship an article a few favorable ballot for Mr. Kurz, Mr. Schmid went ballistic: “We are really mad!!!! Mega mad.”

“I understand completely,” Wolfgang Fellner wrote again, “am now doing a full double page about the poll Wednesday. Okay?”

In December the identical yr, Mr. Schmid relayed some higher information to Mr. Kurz in a chat message. Another ballot had simply hit the headlines exhibiting the conservatives at a document low 18 %, additional undercutting Mr. Kurz’s rival.

“Thank you! Good poll,” Mr. Kurz replied.

Over time, the system was perfected. In January 2017, Österreich revealed not only a ballot however an interview with the pollster, Sabine Beinschab, and used one of her quotes because the headline: The conservatives would “benefit from switching to Kurz.”

It was a line that had been fed to her by the praetorians.

“I told Beinschab yesterday what to say in the interview,” Johannes Frischmann, the spokesman of the finance minister and one other member of Mr. Kurz’s internal circle, reported again to Mr. Schmid, who replied with a clapping emoji.

“I’ve never gone as far as we’re going,” Mr. Schmid wrote. “Brilliant investment. Fellner is a capitalist. If you pay, things get done. I love it.”

By early May, the conservative chief had resigned and Mr. Kurz was swiftly designated his successor. Almost instantly his get together took off within the polls, and within the area of three weeks, catapulted Mr. Kurz into lead place.

It was round this time that Mr. Kurz additionally actively sought out conferences to stress extra vital journalists. In June 2017, he had dinner with Mr. Brandstätter, then the editor in chief of Kurier, one of the broadsheet newspapers.

“Why don’t you like me?” Mr. Kurz had requested repeatedly, Mr. Brandstätter recalled in an interview.

“You have to decide whether you are my friend or my enemy,” Mr. Kurz had stated.

Mr. Kurz comfortably gained the election in October 2017. He had run his marketing campaign on immigration limits and Austrian id, giving a youthful veneer to a lot of the agenda of the far proper — and then inviting it into the federal government.

In the 17 months that adopted, he turned a blind eye to the numerous racist and antisemitic transgressions of his coalition companions. When journalists, like Mr. Brandstätter, reported on them, they bought telephone calls from Mr. Kurz or a member of his expansive communications workforce.

“I got these calls all the time,” Mr. Brandstätter recalled. “Then he called the owners and then the owners called me.”

A yr after Mr. Kurz took workplace, his newspaper leaned on Mr. Brandstätter to maneuver out of his job and develop into writer as an alternative, a task with no editorial management. He is now a lawmaker for the libertarian Neos get together.

Meanwhile, prosecutors say, Mr. Schmid continued to pay for polls and positioned authorities advertisements with Österreich in return for favorable protection. From mid-2016 till the primary quarter of 2018, prosecutors stated, the worth of these advertisements got here to no less than 1.1 million euros, or about $1.3 million.

Then in May 2019, one of Austria’s largest postwar scandals broke. An outdated video surfaced exhibiting essentially the most senior minister of the far-right Freedom Party in Mr. Kurz’s coalition promising authorities contracts to a would-be Russian investor in return for securing favorable protection in a well known Austrian tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung.

It turned out to be a setup. But the video made plain what the far proper was ready to do. What Austrians didn’t know was that their conservative chancellor was really doing it.

The investigation into the video would ultimately put prosecutors on the path of Mr. Kurz and his praetorians.

After the video scandal blew up, Mr. Kurz swiftly ended his coalition with the far proper.

“Enough is enough,” he stated. “What is grave and problematic is the idea of abusing power, of using Austrian taxpayers’ money and of course the understanding of the media landscape in our country.”

Mr. Kurz gained re-election and this time entered a coalition with the progressive Greens, a change that supplied him the possibility to take out the stain of his affiliation with the far proper.

What didn’t change, nonetheless, was Mr. Kurz’s elaborate system of message management.

Last June, after the Austrian journal News wrote a vital article about Mr. Kurz’s conservatives, the Finance Ministry canceled all of its labeled advertisements — not simply in News, however throughout all 15 titles owned by the VGN publishing group.

The loss was round 200,000 euros, stated Horst Pirker, VGN’s chief govt.

“All governments tried to get the important media onside,” Mr. Pirker defined in an interview. “But Kurz took it to a new dimension.”

Mr. Kurz, who stays the conservative get together chief, remains to be hoping to return as chancellor. He has lashed out on the justice system, accusing prosecutors of being politically motivated. Lawmakers loyal to him communicate of “red cells” and “leftist networks,” a kind of “deep state” combating conservatism.

“It’s straight out of the illiberal playbook,” stated Peter Pilz, the writer of “The Kurz Regime,” a just lately revealed guide. “He is badly damaged and unlikely to recover. But if he does, we should all worry.”