09 Oct 2017

Will Austria clean up dirty campaigns?

One of Austria's main parties has called to make "dirty campaigning" a criminal offense. While it seems reasonable to keep such practices to a minimum ... some see it as a threat to freedom of information and opinion.

Julia Sahlender
Julia Sahlender Der Standard, Austria
Source: Der Standard
Will Austria clean up dirty campaigns? - NewsMavens
Austria's Parliament Building. Photo: Mavila2/Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Why this story matters:

Election-campaigning in Austria is almost over and the whole country will head to the polls on Sunday. And while many voters probably decided who to vote for a long time ago, the last few days might have changed their minds. A huge political scandal has made Austrian campaigns look more like televised mudslinging than actual politics.

At the core of the issue is one consultant who probably worked with 3 different parties at different times. He coached them and may have traded information and he's accused of being behind some Facebook pages which discredit the lead candidate of the conservative party ÖVP.

A lot of the details remain unclear and we are yet to find out exactly what went on. But it is still one of the biggest political scandals in the country. Ever since the story broke it has dominated the headlines and new details emerge every day. 

The strategies and tactics used during this campaign cycle are still largely harmless and tame compared to US elections, so it's generally good to see that the bar for decency between political opponents appears to still be quite high in Austria.

But in a bid to stop such scandals from happening again, the ÖVP has called to make "dirty campaigning" a criminal offense.

While it seems reasonable to keep such practices to a minimum, criminal justice experts say it won't be easy. A lot of them understand the call for stricter laws but say there are already applicable laws against slander, libel and defamation in place. One criminal law professor at the University of Vienna somewhat agrees with ÖVP's demands but thinks it can't be done before Sunday's election. Others are outright critical of ÖVP's plan because they see it as a threat to freedom of information and opinion. 

The idea that political civility needs to be disciplined by stricter laws in order for politicians to keep campaigning clean is disconcerting. However, new factors like the Internet and the influence of social media and fake news, especially during campaign time, are currently completely unregulated and do need be more transparent.

Details from the story:

  • Tal Silberstein is a political adviser and consultant and the person at the center of Austria's scandal
  • The main conflict is between the SPÖ and the ÖVP, the two parties which currently make up the Austrian government
  • Silberstein was allegedly paid by SPÖ to manage two Facebook pages discrediting Sebastian Kurz, although SPÖ lead candidate and Austria's current chancellor Christian Kern denies any knowledge of them
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