A Chancellor with Expiry Date

26 06 2008

Who Needs Socialdemocrats? – The Austrian Version, Commentary

Photo: Thumbs up for the SPÖ with dual party leadership?

When Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer (SPÖ) announced on June 15 a minor reshuffle within the Socialdemocratic government ministers, the political commentators were not particularly estonished. The annoncement of a split between the position of a Chancellor – Alfred Gusenbauer – and the SPÖ party leadership – Werner Faymann, to be nominated later this year -, however, was a major political development, for which Austria has almost no tradition.

“In a time in which Socialdemocrats should prosper as never before, it rarely has gone worse for them (politically). Everyone speaks of fairness, but the Socialdemocrats speak about themselves,” so Heribert Prantl, editor for Domestic Politics at the influential German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung on June 14. He was not, however, predicting the political moves of the Austrian Socialdemocrats a few days ahead, but rather analyzing the current state of affairs for the German SPD.

Although both Socialdemocratic parties developed under different political circumstances and conducted their influence in their respective countries in different political constelations, the situation at this point in time is almost identical and best to be understood in a decline of the Socialdemocratic movement within European democracies.

The German SPD cleary struggles for its political survival – and as it seems, much more than its Austrian counterpart. In current polls, the SPD gained some ground in the past weeks (currently 27%, at the last General Election 34.2%), but in early June, it has reached its all-time low of about 21% approval rate. Prantl hints the dramatic decline of one of Europe’s leading Socialdemocratic parties to some extent to the establishment of a populist leftist party, Die Linke, founded in June 2007 by merging the former GDR Communists, the PDS, led by Gregor Gysi, and former SPD Chancellor candidate and Finance Minister, Oskar Lafontaine. The surprising success of this movement in the Western Bundesländer (provinces) – so far only successful in the former Eastern part of Germany – forces new political concepts and strategies in party leaderhip.

Provocatively, Prantl poses the question “Who needs the SPD?” Who indeed, a majority of the German electorate wonders, because its policies and performance in gouvernment is “without colour, form and is simply invisble.”

One of the strategies adapted was to split the party leaderhip – currently Kurt Beck – from the gouvernment leadership, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier – in Germany the Vice Chancellor, as the SPD is the junior partner of the Conservative CDU led by Angela Merkel. The evident result is, however, that this dual concept, applied since May 2006 in its current constelation, has not given the party political room to manouver.

The Austrian Socialdemocrats, on the other side, are confident, that this dual leadership will give them “more air for the work in gouvernment” as Defence Minister Norbert Darabos said in an interview with Der Standard; and reflecting the current European Football Championships held partly in Austria, he said that Chancellor Gusenbauer is now “freigespielt” (to beark clear of the opponent).

Gusenbauer confidant, Doris Bures, until this month Minister for Women Affairs and Equality, returns to the party headquarters as its manager – yet again – and will ensure that in terms of internal and external communications “the party will again pull one string.”

So, is that the solution out of this crisis, that has left the Austrian Scoialdemocrats scattered in recent election – the local elections in Graz of January 2008, the provincial elections of Niederösterreich (March 2008), and the ones of Tirol earlier this month with a loss of 40% of their electorate?

The current German example raises serious doubts, and within the SPÖ there are indications that Gusenbauer might only be a Chancellor with an expiry date. One should look back to Germany in 2004, when Chancellor Gerhard Schröder also withdrew as party leader. Consequently, Schröder lost the snap elections of 2005 and the Conservative Angela Merkel succeded him in the German Chanclery since. A fate, the Austrian Socialdemocrats risk for the 2010 General Elections, and the possibility of being reduced to a middle-sized political party. Who needs Socialdemocrats then?

This is an excerpt, the full article will be published in July 2008 in The Vienna Review.




2 responses

1 07 2008

Hi, Matthias!
I wanted to send you private email, but could not find your address withing your blog.
I was glad to find your blog on internet, and of course I heard about you before,
perhaps, we have even met, because you have face it is difficult to forget.
I also write on politics.
May I include your blog address in my blogroll?
It would be nice to hear from you

17 03 2009

I just wanted to comment. Your content was informative to me and thanks.

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