When entering the Columbus Shopping Center in Favoritenstrasse on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2008, the late weekend shopper in need of some groceries or a quick cup of coffee encountered a large crowd of a few dozens of people, gathered around a small podium next to the escalator with a two presenters on stage, right in front of a wooden cow.
Evidently it is the end of the harvest season, traditionally celebrated with the so-called Erntedankfest; and wrapped baskets of organic goodies from local supermarket down below seemed to underline the seasonal festivities, enriched by folk music played loudly over loudspeakers.
But that was not seemingly so, as the presenter announced at 4 pm that the Shopping Center is about to give away hundreds of prizes, which can be won instantly by answering simple questions. A show of hands, or later by phoning in – the right answer presumed – the lucky customer could immediately pick up his prize and continue shopping.
The questions were simple indeed, though subjective at times; and so were the answers, such as “Which is the most popular shopping center in Vienna?” When the response from the crowd was “Donauzentrum” the moderator was evidently disappointed. But luckily the person on the phone, an elderly lady “from the 10th district neighborhood”, took the right guess and became the lucky winner of a coffee machine.
So, as the packed crowd followed each question with full excitement, some of the bystanders shake their heads and murmured that these questions were ridiculous simple and their answers as well.
In the past three days, the Austrian electorate was also presented with a large number of ‘giveaways’. Not least, it is election time, and activists of all political parties were handing out all kinds of goodies, from cigarette lighters to pens and herb seeds, and, of course, balloons for the kids. Those were also noticeable in the Columbus Center that Saturday afternoon as parties still were campaigning on the streets. It was, after all, one day before the snap elections, almost three months after parliament decided to hold general elections on Sept. 28.
But the goodies on the streets, along with leaflets, brochures and flyers, are peanuts in comparison to the ‘giveaways’ the Austrian parliamentarians have presented days before a record of Austrians (6.3 Mio) are eligible to vote.
In a marathon session of parliament on Wednesday, Sept. 24, which lasted for 19 hours and 13 minutes, the 183 members of parliament voted for 52 legislative initiatives, spending, according to APA, an additional estimated EUR 2.6 billion every year.
The measures taken include the increase of pensions (by 3.4% including one-off payments), the introduction of a 13th month income support for children, as well as the abolition of tuition fees for public universities. The prestige project of the Social Democrats of cutting VAT rate for groceries from 10% by half to 5%, however, failed to gain enough support in parliament, as Jörg Haider’s BZÖ bailed out.
Forgotten were the words of caution of restraints in election promises and giveaways of tax money. Particularly of those voiced by the conservative ÖVP.
“Election sweeteners must never be the backpack of young people,” party leader Wilhelm Molterer stated, defending the party position, “we have proposed on those measures of financial relief that we can uphold.”
A statement that should have been reiterated last week as the world economic situation worsens with the collapse of the stock market and large banks. Nevertheless, Werner Faymann, head of the Social Democrats, denied any serious impact of the US economic crisis for Europe, for which the will be spending over US $ 700 billion to balance the financial sector. And he added in the TV debate that it was necessary to take all the parliamentary decisions now and see to the budgetary effects later.
And so, not much surprise that in the last parliamentary session all parties represented found giveaways for their electorate. In majorities across the political spectrum, large-scale legislative decision with long-term financial effects was taken with little preparation, despite an acting government for Social Democrats and Conservatives supported by a large parliamentary majority.
What was hailed by some commentators as ‘great moments of Austrian Parliamentarism’ was, however, a display democratic immaturity. Short-term political gains put the economic and budgetary stability of Austria at risk.
The election result – at time of writing – not surprisingly shows a blow for the two largest political parties in a historic defeat. Neither the Social Democrats (with just under 30% still remained Austria’s strongest party) nor the Conservative (just under 26%) reached more than 30% of the votes, while the two far-right parties, FPÖ and BZÖ, together doubled their share of votes together to 29%.
The Austrian people may be able to pick up their financial goodies the political parties provided them before the election, but leaves virtually no room to maneuver in times of economic decline – simple answers to simple questions, unlike in the Columbus Center the day before, do not always provide the best solutions for a country’s economic stability.