Next round in ‘part of the game’ trail

A provincial high court has annulled a controversial verdict against a leading right-winger.

Carinthian Freedom Party (FPK) head Uwe Scheuch, the deputy governor of Carinthia, was found guilty of unjust enrichment by the Provincial Court of Klagenfurt last August. Scheuch was accused of offering political interference in exchange for a donation to his party. A former Freedom Party (FPÖ) member secretly recorded a phone conversation suggesting that Scheuch offered a Russian businessman in receiving Austrian citizenship. Scheuch allegedly said he would do so if his party would “benefit in some way”. Magazine News published the recorded chat on its homepage.

Scheuch – who was a member of the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) in 2009 when the chat was taped – is accused of suggesting to the entrepreneur to donate a certain share of a possible investment in the province of Carinthia to his party. In the conservation, Scheuch apparently said that getting an Austrian passport “would be part of the game”. Klagenfurt court judge Christian Liebhauser-Karl said after announcing his verdict last year that corruption “is a cancerous ulcer that has to be combated”.

Scheuch and his lawyer Dieter Böhmdorfer – who once served as FPÖ justice minister – vowed to fight the verdict of six months in prison and another 12 months on suspension. Scheuch branded the court’s decision as “politically motivated”. His advocate’s appeal action meant that the Provincial High Court of Styria (OLG) in Graz had to re-examine the case.

Now Graz judges asked the court of Klagenfurt to look into the issue once more. They announced yesterday (Thurs) that Scheuch had not been informed about some legal steps taken by the judge during the initial trial. However, the Graz panel did not comment the decision to sentence Scheuch.

Scheuch refused to comment the developments in detail. He only told a radio news programme of Austrian broadcaster ORF that he was “literally speechless”. Scheuch said: “I have no precise information about the decision yet. Furthermore, I decided some time ago to be reluctant and cautious with statements regarding the issue. I will not make any changes in this regard.”

Rolf Holub, who heads the Carinthian Greens, called on Scheuch to step down despite the annulment of the Klagenfurt court’s verdict. Peter Kaiser, the chairman of the Carinthian department of the Social Democrats (SPÖ), said he was “surprised” by the decision.

Political analysts said immediately after the initial verdict that it could have a negative impact on the FPÖ’s rising popularity. Experts claimed at that time that the decision of the court might harm the FPÖ’s chances to become the strongest party of Austria for the first time in the federal election of 2013 since the FPÖ – which cooperates with the FPK – had always accused various members of the federal SPÖ-People’s Party (ÖVP) government of being deeply entangled in corruption.

Political scientist Peter Filzmaier said one day after the first-instance verdict against Scheuch that it could cause a change of mind of many conservative voters who were ready to support the FPÖ in upcoming elections. He added that the court’s decision might help raising feelings of solidarity among right-wingers across the country at the same time. Political strategist Thomas Hofer said at that time that a reduction of Scheuch’s sentence could feel like a victory to supporters of Austria’s right-wing movement.