Competing with the Far-Right on Europe

28 01 2009

Saturday, Jan. 17, was a historic moment for Austria’s Green Party. On the party congress, held in Klagenfurt, Eva Glawischnig, the nominated new party leader succeeding Alexander van der Bellen, received 97.4% of delegates’ votes (228 of 234), a truly remarkable result and the highest approval rate for any Green Party leader in its history.

Party officials hail this convincing result as a sign of unity of the party, severely shaken after its disappointing election result of Sept. 2008, where the Green Party dropped to the fifth place in parliament with 10.4%, unable to defend the third place (11 %) of 2006.

Glawischnig, in an attempt to differentiate herself from her more conservative-leaning predecessor van der Bellen, evidently plays the populism card on questions of the European Union in order to regain national attention.

“The Treaty of Lisbon is dead”, she declared in rhetoric similar to the far-right parties in an interview with Der Standard on Dec. 11, 2008. And she continued on the perspective that the accession negotiations with Turkey were successfully completed:

“Since the (European) Union failed at the Treaty of Lisbon, it has to ensure that its institutions work effectively with the new number of members. This is still a huge construction site. Under the current conditions, the EU is not receptive (to new members).”

This dramatic shift in European politics, announced first in a newspaper interview, inevitably provoked an open conflict with Johnannes Voggenhuber, longstanding MEP and as a member of the European Convention intimately acquainted with the EU constitutional process. Not surprisingly, Voggenhuber has been an adversary of the Constitutional Treaty and the succeeding Treaty of Lisbon.

Indeed, Glawischnig’s tactical shift on Europe was aimed at the removal of Voggenhuber as leading candidate for the elections to the European Parliament, to be held in June 2009. Following election result for the party at the last general elections, among young voters – a majority of voters aged 30 and younger supported the FPÖ with 44% – at the national election of September 2008, Glawischnig seems determined to win back this traditionally Green-leaning electoral segment at all costs.

Despite Glawischnig’s clumsy attempt of publicly undermining Voggenhuber, she did indeed succeed at the party congress on Saturday, Jan. 17: Ulrike Lunacek received the support of the majority of party delegates (54.7%) and consequently sent Voggenhuber into early retirement.

Nevertheless, Voggenhuber hit back by declaring his intention of a solidarity candidacy on 16th place. If he is supported by seven or more percent of the Green party electorate, he will be guaranteed the parliamentary seat.

Eva Glawischnig, the newly elected party leader has impressively demonstrated her assertiveness in personnel matters, yet the party has paid a high political price: Like the two far-right parties, sacrificing long-term political aims for short-term electoral gains. Soon we will know whether this was a wise strategy.

This is an excerpt, the full article was published in February 2009 in The Vienna Review.


Austria At 90 – Though at times neither sovereign nor democratic…

29 11 2008

ov0102_w03_k_agPhoto: Historical Map of the Deutsch-Österreich territory of 1918. Photo Credit: Collection of Peter Wassertheurer

“Ninety years of the Republic of Austria..,” Johanna Rachinger, General Director of the Austrian National Library paused, and for a second the words hung in the air. “Now we all know that there are a number of inaccuracies that resonate with those words,” she admitted.

Yes. You could see a head nod here or there, particularly the grey ones. Because, for at least seven years, from 1938 to 1945, there had been neither a Republic nor a sovereign state of Austria. And with the elimination of the Parliament in March 1933 and the establishment of the Austro-Fascist state in May 1934, there was certainly no democracy.

These things are known, but not often spoken of in Austria even today. But sharing the podium at the Hofburg on Nov. 12 with President Heinz Fischer in front of Austria’s leading politicians, Rachinger didn’t want to cut any corners. Austria was celebrating the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Austrian Republic in 1918, and she wanted to get it right.

As Rachinger continued, Austria’s complex history in the early years of the 20th century became clearer – the intermittent abolition of an autonomous, democratic Austrian state and the entanglement in national-socialist injustice “mark a deep caesura between the First and Second Republic and define our national identity even today,” she said. Read the rest of this entry »

End of an Era – The passing of two politicians who shaped late 20th century Austria

15 11 2008
Helmut Zilk and Thomas Klestil

Helmut Zilk and Thomas Klestil

Photo: Helmut Zilk (left) and Austrian President Thomas Klestil. Photo Credit: Österr. Bundesheer

Far right leader Jörg Haider’s sudden and tragic death in the early hours of his mother’s 90th birthday celebration, mirrored his political life. The Carinthian regional governor was a whirlwind, a controversial and charismatic populist, who successfully dominated Austrian domestic and international politics for over two decades.

Less than two weeks later, Austria mourned yet another political firecracker: Helmut Zilk, former Social Democratic Mayor of Vienna (1984 – 1994) died peacefully in his sleep Oct. 24th. at the age of 82. Zilk, although nominally retired, was still was actively involved in Austrian politics until a few years ago, and certainly willingly offered criticism on almost anything to do with the SPÖ.

His reach beyond party politics brought him respect from political opponents. Among those was Erhard Busek, Zilk’s political adversary, who called him a “Streithansl (squabbler) but also a man with a sense for reconciliation.” Read the rest of this entry »

Discussing the “European Dilemma” – Interview with Erhard Busek

1 10 2008
Courtesy of Erhard Busek

Copyright: Courtesy of Erhard Busek

In April 1994, after the negotiations for Austria to join the EU were successfully completed, the campaign for the enabling referendum on June 12, began to heat up. At the height of the debate, Brigitte Ederer, the then Social Democrats State Secretary for EU Affairs and now CEO of Siemens Österreich, projected that joining the European Union, every Austrian family would save about 1,000 Schillings a month (about €75) in living expenses through more competitive pricing.

Despite the ongoing political campaign for the general election Sept. 28, 2008, and a busy schedule as a leader of political dialogue, Erhard Busek, former Conservative ÖVP party leader, took time for a discussion about fundamental European issues.

Ederer’s ‘Tausender’ is a promise that has been criticized by political allies and opponents alike, even earning it a Wikipedia entry. Among those critics – then as today – was Busek, at the time Austria’s Vice Chancellor.

“No one can sensually experience this ‘Tausender’,” Busek argued assertively. He is still in disbelief that anyone could seriously make such an argument.

“Everyone expected that they would be handed 1,000 Schillings when leaving a supermarket,” he said incredulously. Not without irony, he points to the current general election campaign, and the “nonsense” – this time, that the Social Democrats could propose to cut the 10% VAT rate on groceries by half – is being repeated almost exactly.

Read the rest of this entry »

Budgetary Giveaways in 19 Hours and 13 Minutes

28 09 2008

Photo: BZÖ Party Leader Jörg Haider campaigning, General Elections, September 2008

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

A Clear Parliamentary Majority Needed – But What For?

23 06 2008

The Current Austrian Political Crisis can be Solved by Changing the Electoral System, Conservatives Argue – News Analysis

Photo: Proponents of the Initiative Mehrheitswahlrecht at a press conference at Presseclub Concordia, April 24, 2008. Heinrich Neisser seated in the center.

Throughout April and May 2008, some of the predominantly Conservative Austrian political elite, led by the Initiative Mehrheitswahlrecht (Initiative Majority Voting System) and its chairman Heinrich Neisser and ventilated by the Conservative daily Die Presse, reopened a public debate with a proposed change of the Austrian electoral system for general elections.

Ever since the country has a new Grand Coalition between the Socialdemocrats (SPÖ) and the Conservative ÖVP since January 2007, critical voices not only from its opposition but also within both parties voiced their doubts on the effectiveness of the current government, which regularly seems to disintegrate and at the verge of collapse.

Neisser, former Conservative MP and Second President of the Austrian Parliament, as well as other influential proponents of the committee, including former ORF General Intendant Gerd Bacher, Socialdemocratic Historian Norbert Leser and Profil-Columnist Peter Michael Lingens, believe that a clear parliamentary single-party majority is essential for a stable government, able to tackle the critical problems, like healthcare and pension reforms, or a the overhaul of the Austrian Constitution.

The current grand coalition government, led by Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer (Socialdemocrats) and Vice Chancellor Wilhem Molterer (Conservatives), though supported with a large parliamentary support of almost 70% – the SPÖ gained 35.3 % and ÖVP gained 34.3 % of the votes in the October 2006 General Elections and jointly they are able to push though constitutional changes for which a 2/3 majority is needed – however, in the eyes of the Initiative, it has not seriously touched on any of those projects so far since in power in January 2007.

In a press conference, held at the Presseclub Concordia on April 24, Gerd Bacher referred to the government’s overall performance that “within the history of quadriplegic grand coalitions, the currently is the worst of its kind.” Consequently, the proponents blame the current situation on the electoral system, which brought, in their view, no clear a result, but instead limited coalition options, forcing parties from the contrary political spectrum into one government.

Therefore, the Initiative strongly proposed for the proportional electoral system to be abolished and a voting system based on personal representation, as in the United States or Great Britain, should be introduced.

The Initiative’s manifesto, published also on the Internet, states that they aim for the realization of a “personality oriented and minority-friendly majority voting system” by which all five political parties represented in the Austrian Parliament today would still be present. However, there is no specific reference as to how this “protected species regulation” for the smaller parties, as Gerd Bacher provocatively termed it, should be realized in practice.

“It is important that all parties, whether useful or not – and in my understanding most are, however, useless – remain (in Parliament),” he added. Read the rest of this entry »