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Scandal 'tsunami' threatens to sink Austria's ruling centre-left

© AFP/File / by Sophie MAKRIS | A vandalised election poster of the centre-right Austrian People's Party (OeVP) top candidate, Sebastian Kurz, who has catapulted his party to pole position in pre-election opinion polls

VIENNA (AFP) - 

Caught in a "tsunami" of scandals, the battle already seems all but lost for Austria's ruling centre-left days from a snap election.

A murky smear campaign against their key conservative rival has left the Social Democrats (SPOe) and their dream of winning the October 15 vote in tatters.

Instead the SPOe, a stalwart of Austrian politics since 1945, looks set to suffer the fate shared by most other centre-left parties across Europe -- relegated to the opposition corner, outflanked by increasingly hardline conservatives.

"A disaster beyond all expectations" is how one newspaper described the damaging affair engulfing Chancellor Christian Kern and his SPOe entourage.

The scandal unravelled a few weeks ago with the appearance of social media sites spreading "fake news" about Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old leader of the conservative People's Party (OeVP).

The slick-haired wonder boy, who is also foreign minister, has catapulted his party to pole position in pre-election opinion polls since taking office in May.

Straight after his nomination, Kurz pulled the plug on the decade-long unhappy coalition with the SPOe, triggering an early parliamentary vote.

Kurz's popularity -- partially owed to his hardline stance on immigration -- has dealt a blow to the SPOe and the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), which are now fighting for second place.

Nonetheless the political mudslinging had remained restrained -- until two anti-Kurz campaigns surfaced on Facebook.

One page, called "The Truth about Sebastian Kurz", showed fake pictures and video clips portraying the OeVP boss as an "immigrationist" whose aim it was to open Austria's border to let in floods of refugees.

The site also accused Kurz of being in cahoots with Jewish US billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, the favourite bete noire of nationalists worldwide.

The goal of the anti-Semitic and xenophobic messages was clear, observers say -- to discredit Kurz with the right-wing camp.

Meanwhile, another page took aim at more liberal voters by presenting the party leader as a hardliner willing to close the border with Italy to keep migrants out.

- 'Incredibly stupid' -

Damning evidence has emerged in recent days that the dirty campaign was masterminded by Kern's former advisor, Tal Silberstein.

The SPOe had fired Silberstein in August after he was arrested in Israel over his alleged involvement in money laundering, charges he denies.

According to Austrian media, Silberstein's team continued to run the smear sites even after the Social Democrats ditched him.

The revelations sent shockwaves through the political establishment and prompted the resignation of the SPOe's chairman on October 1.

"We've woken up in the middle of a tsunami," said his interim replacement, Christoph Matznetter, on Monday.

The plot thickened further on Thursday with accusations that the OeVP had offered money to a member of Silberstein's team to share information about their activities.

Chancellor Kern has denied any knowledge of the campaign, which he called "immoral" and "incredibly stupid".

But for experts, the scandal has destroyed the Social Democrats' credibility.

"Kern no longer stands a chance," political analyst Wolfgang Bachmayer told the Kurier newspaper in a recent interview.

"If you can't even control... your own party, how can you run a country?"

- Party torn apart -

The shock over the SPOe's perceived downfall is commensurate with the hopes placed in ex-railway chief Kern, 51, when he became chancellor in May 2016.

His predecessor, Werner Faymann, had been forced to quit after the SPOe's catastrophic defeat in the first round of last year's presidential race.

Expectations had been high that the telegenic Kern, with his business acumen and media savvy approach, could put his party back on track and fend off the far-right.

But he has not been able to heal the big rifts tearing the SPOe apart.

Key disagreements persist over how to manage a record influx of asylum-seekers and, more importantly, whether the time has come to break a major taboo and consider sharing power with the far-right.

"There are two wings in the party: the left-wing still wants to take refugees in while the right-wing says, 'We have to stop, otherwise the Freedom Party will take our voters'," political analyst Alexandra Siegl told AFP.

Kern's failure to tackle these issues will leave him and his party the "big losers" of this election, Siegl said.

by Sophie MAKRIS

© 2017 AFP