I admit: I have cast my vote in the elections to the European Parliament at about 10.40 am this morning. So, I am one of about 35 to 40 percent of the Austrian electorate – my estimation – that by the end of the day will have cast their vote for the 17 Austrian seats in the European Parliament. In 2004, 42.5% went to the polls.
There were a few novelties for me: For the first time, I made my way to the polling station without any idea who I am going to vote. As resident of Vienna’s most-populated district Favoriten, it is a five-minute walk to the primary school at Keplerplatz, right at the administrative center of Vienna’s 10th district, just off the underground station of the same name and the pedestrian Favoritenstrasse.
While attentatively walking through the streets at a humid but cloudy Sunday morning, I recall No Mercy’s 1996-hit ‘Where Do You Go?’ Indeed, where is Europe heading, I wonder.
My uncertainty began in January 2009: Johannes Voggenhuber of the Austrian Greens and one of the influential and knowledgeable Austrian MEP was axed by his own party – see my commentary.
The problem was not primarily that of exchange of leading candidates of one of Austria’s pro-European parties; the position of MEP candidate Ulrike Lunacek and party leader Eva Glawischnig was unclear and clouded by a disappointing result of the general election of September 2008.
Among Austrian ‘European’ MEPs, I noticed the Social Democrats Herbert Bösch and Hannes Swoboda, as well as the Conservative Otmar Karas. It was a painstaking process to reach a decision, and but middle of May I was finally certain whom I will support in the Jun. 7 elections.
But on Jun. 2, the disastrous final television debate of all the leading candidates represented either in the Austrian or European Parliament on ORF. It was an all-time low performance of all political parties, which added to the openly racist hate campaign by the far-right FPÖ. Bizarrely, Austria’s enfant terrible in the European Parliament, Hans Peter Martin – he scored the third place with about 14% in 2004 – suddenly seemed a viable option: God almighty, Europe, where do you go?
Just two days ago, on Jun. 5, I was invited to a public talk, ‘The Faces of Europe’, with Austria’s EU Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner at the Fachhochschule of the bfi – rather a personal conversation in front of an interested audience, moderated by Der Standard’s Eric Frey. The Festsaal was absolutely packed with more than 200 people – the university staff hastily added chairs, but still a few had to stand or sit on radiators near the window.
The inspiring talk showed, that even on a warm summery Friday evening, the interested public can be mobilized. Richard Kühnel, head of the EU Commission here in Austria, who opened the evening, had a gloomy feeling about the upcoming elections.
In a short conversation after the event had finished, again the final television debate was the point of anger: “This will be an election of the frustrated,” and the sound in his voice was sarcastic but with a clear tone of concern.
“Just when things are finally going our way” – the global economic crisis has sparked a stronger support in the European institutions, and there was even a chance of an increase in electoral participation on Jun. 7 – “the Austrian politicians certainly have not done any favors in the debate, and we have to start from square one again.”
These were the thoughts when I walked through the streets of Favoriten to the polling station – a district traditionally dominated by the FPÖ, and some of the controversial clashes took place here in the recent weeks.
In desperation, I glance at the election posters I come across at almost every street lamp: One of the rare posters of Hans Peter Martin is the first one at the lower exit of Keplerplatz underground station – promising, he were the only one to check on the almighty powerful bureaucracy in Brussels.
As I turn into Favoritenstrasse, the blue-colored posters of the Conservatives – in hope of gaining the lead position this time (32.7% in 2004) – clearly dominate the scene here. In front of the Keplerkirche and the primary school, Ernst Strasser, their leading candidate, stares at me every few meters with the serious look and the message that no one can overtake Europe, nor Austria. On the other side, the second-ranked youngish Otmar Karas appeals for directly cast votes, hoping to outsmart the lead position of Strasser.
A few of the Conservative posters are torn down or small green stickers were affixed on the text or eyes. As it turns out, these were of the Green party warning of Strasser with a word game of Grasser (Karlheinz Grasser, former Austrian Finance Minister). The Greens (12.89% in 2004) are notably not present otherwise, which evidently accounts for their current political estate.
I take a short detour further up Favoritenstrasse towards Reumannplatz to Viktor-Adler-Markt. This is the FPÖ’s stronghold in terms of election campaigning. Heinz-Christian Strache appears here almost weekly, and the metal police barricades – now piled up just off the market – are an inbuilt feature in election times.
But the square at the end of the market is dominated by posters of the political left: the Social Democrats (33.33% in 2004) with leading candidate Hannes Swoboda, promoting Austria’s ‘A’ Team for Europe one a red background; and the Communist Party – with the exception of the city of Graz and the province of Styria no political factor – argues that Austria should leave the EU, as “we” should not pay for the responsibility of the economic crisis.
The FPÖ posters, on the other hand, are affixed just a little further down at the crossing of Gudrunstrasse, and are almost unrecognizable, as the racist annotations of the campaign evidently infuriated many. But there is little else the FPÖ (a low 6.3% in 2004) needs to do – the premature release of trends and partial results from the Netherlands on Friday morning shows that far-right provocations helps mobilizing the protest vote. If predications are correct in Austria, the FPÖ will triple – at least – its share of votes.
I turn back to Keplerplatz, pass the church and enter the school to cast my vote. I am still thinking whom to vote for, and even when I get the ballot paper from the officials and enter the booth, I still have no clue where to put my cross.
While glancing through the candidate lists in the booth I recall some of the last opinion polls. The two large parties are likely to loose dramatically (both somewhere between 27 and 29%), but who stays first? Interesting is Hans Peter Martin (somewhere 12 to 16%), and the realistic chance of defending his realistic chance of remaining third strongest Austrian fraction. It remains to be seen how much mobilization the racist annotations of the FPÖ (between 14 to 18%) helped or damaged its course.
The Greens will lose (projected between 8 and 11%); how much depends to some extend if the Conservatives can mobilize their disappointed electorate. The BZÖ has a chance to enter the European Parliament, but 5.5% of the vote share is needed (currently ranked at somewhat 4 to 6%).
After five minutes of studying the candidate lists, I give up on a rational decision. I cannot make up my mind, so I close my eyes and put my finger at the ballot paper. As I open my eyes again, my finger rested on the Conservative circle on the ballot paper.
I specifically cast my vote for Otmar Karas in the hope he gains the pole position in his party. In my opinion, one of Austria’s competent and constructive voices in Europe – let’s hope I do not regret my decision later…
P.S.: For what it’s worth, here is my prediction for the Austrian part of the EP elections: SPÖ (Social Democrats) 27%, ÖVP (Conservatives) 26%, FPÖ 18%, HPM (Hans Peter Martin) 15%, Grüne (Greens) 6%, BZÖ 6%