Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 2, No 6
14 February 2000

Viennese Waltz
  The Viennese Waltz
A U S T R I A:
Commotion in 3/4 Time
Saša Cvijetić

The recent political events in Austria came as a shock but are certainly not a surprise. The country's political system, deep-frozen during the decades of the Social Democrats' (SPÖ) and conservatives' (ÖVP) rule (the last joint incarnation of which lasted no shorter than 13 years), could have wonderfully been described by only one phrase, taken from the title of Stendhal's famous masterpiece: "Le Rouge et Le Noir." These two colours, red and black, are the well-known symbols of the two parties that dominated the Second Republic ever since it was created in 1955.

Austria, a country of roughly eight million inhabitants, joined the EU in early 1995. That act, supported by some two-thirds of the population in a referendum, was described by many as Austria's final return to the core of Europe, to which, it claimed, it had belonged since the time of the mighty Empire.

Indeed, the political and, perhaps more importantly, cultural and social heritage of the Hapsburg Empire is central to any attempt to understand Austria, its international position and its internal processes. That legacy is, however, controversial in itself. On one hand, in spite of the obvious absence of democracy in decision-making, the Empire treated its non-Germanic (mostly Slavic) nations relatively well, especially when compared with two other empires of the time - the Ottoman and the Russian. On the other hand, it had developed an extremely powerful system of bureaucracy and all that went along it - privileges, power and status-based hierarchy, petite bourgeoisie and so on.

Defeated and stripped of its former peripheries in the First World War, Austria did not cease to live in its past glory and consider itself the key player in what it called Mitteleuropa, a vague notion of a space conceived geo-politically - rather than geographically - as its sphere of influence. The Second World War, in which Austria played a not-so-negligible role (if nothing else, one cannot but mention that Adolf Hitler was Austrian), and the subsequent occupation by the Allies, which ended in 1955 with the establishment of the neutral Second Republic, seemingly did not bring about a break with the old traditions. While Germany has undergone a very painful and long-lasting process of breaking with the past, Austria has not. Not having suffered as much destruction in the war as its northern neighbour, Austria recovered economically rather soon and became one of the most prosperous European states. Its international position - on the border with the former Warsaw Pact countries but outside the NATO alliance - was another feature which contributed, at least to some extent, to the perseverance of the status quo as the dominant determinant of Austrian politics and society.

It is relatively easy to argue that all of the elements pertaining to the Empire continued to shape Austrian society even in the Second Republic. A very strong traditionalism has not only been a facade - marked by Strauss's waltzes, impressive imperial buildings and a considerable amount of kitsch - but, in a way, a modus vivendi and, more importantly, a modus operandi.

Politics was in the hands of two parties which were taking turns in government or running it in coalition. The third party, today's Freedom Party (FPÖ), was founded later and had its ups and downs until the 1980s, when it began a steady rise under its new, young, charismatic leader, Jörg Haider. It was the time of the famous socialist chancellor Bruno Kreisky, who can arguably be considered Haider's political father or, at the very least, role model. However, the FPÖ was still too weak to challenge the power of the SPÖ and ÖVP, which had meanwhile penetrated into all segments of society. Their rule became notorious for the so-called Proporz system, according to which all posts in the country - from teachers to ministers and even businessmen - were filled by loyal members of either of the two parties, with a very thorough balance kept between the two. This was pushed to such extremes that those who did not want to opt for the opportunistic joining-up with either of these two parties or were in any way feeling deprived by this system started to voice their grievances and dissatisfaction with the existing state of affairs more and more.

The Proporz system was closely inter-twined with the excessively important role of bureaucracy, quite inefficient but very demanding, which, to a considerable extent, tended to favour the ÖVP electorate. The SPÖ, on the other hand, had a very important stronghold among workers - especially in the trade unions, powerful beyond any reasonable measure.

Bound up in these complex and subtle power networks shared exclusively between the ÖVP and SPÖ, the country in essence failed to modernise. Whereas the difference from other western European countries in the 1960s and 1970s was not so obvious (especially since the living standard was never low), the internationalisation and globalisation of economies and societies were processes that Austria - still approaching things in the old, traditionalist way - could not entirely sustain.

Education, for instance, is a field in which the situation has reached critical proportions - Austria has the lowest number of university graduates and PhD degree holders per capita in the EU, and the average duration of university studies is nearly ten years (compared, for example, with 3.6 in the UK). Needless to say, this represents a definite and very important obstacle towards modernisation and certainly has an important impact on the society.

The lack of modern and open approaches and policies was evident in other fields as well. Austria is the only member of the EU (and possibly the only country in Europe) in which national private radio and TV stations are not permitted. The state radio and TV broadcaster, ORF, still has a monopoly; some (mainly entertainment-oriented) private TV stations exist but only on the local level, broadcast through cable networks (and thus not accessible to everyone). Many other examples could be given to show that Austria has certainly been lagging behind other European countries in many respects, including the development of a modern society ready to respond adequately to the challenges that each modern-day democracy is facing.

The ambitious leader of the FPÖ, Jörg Haider, played extremely skilfully on this card: he recognised the growing dissatisfaction of a part of the population with the Proporz and the SPÖ-ÖVP system of rule and emphasised it whenever he could. He took advantage of the fact that there was no party for which the protest vote could be cast, since the Greens and the Liberals (both founded only relatively recently) are not the parties that attract the average voter. In short: there was no other political force in Austria. So, whether you like Haider or not, if you are dissatisfied with the system as it is, you must vote for him.

The FPÖ started to collect votes from another pool of voters as well: relatively poorly educated, often young, people who saw themselves threatened by the sudden boom of modern branches of economy, in which there was no place for them. Although the unemployment rates in Austria were never high (they are currently at around 4 to 5 per cent), this kind of dissatisfaction was not negligible. Last but not least, male voters felt threatened by women - often well educated, ambitious, adaptable and enjoying the vast support of equal-opportunity and other governmental policies. Hence, a clear depiction of the average FPÖ voter emerges: young, relatively poorly educated, male. The recent electoral results and their analyses have confirmed this picture almost unanimously.

However, Haider, as an unquestionably talented politician, realised that these voters are not enough for him to get the Chancellor's seat (a goal he had set for himself a long time ago - to be achieved by the year 2000, that is, his 50th birthday). He needed something to channel these fears and grievances; he needed a scapegoat, something that would not only solidify his existing pool of voters but perhaps attract some others too. The solution was easy: he chose foreigners.

Attracted in the 1970s and 1980s by Austria's economic prosperity and relatively lax immigration laws, a large number of foreigners, mainly from Turkey and former Yugoslavia, arrived in Austria. The war in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s further increased their number, and in large cities, especially Vienna, they represent a considerable percentage of the overall population. The poor integration policies of the ruling coalition and the latent racism and xenophobia that probably exist in every society just made Haider's work easier; he realised what he needed to do (or rather, say) in order to gain votes. He needed to provide the voters with the obvious "target" - and foreigners were evidently the easiest and the most visible one.

Haider's pro-Nazi statements are to be understood in a somewhat different context, however, and are not (at least not directly) related to his xenophobic statements. Nazism is, namely, a taboo, and someone of Haider's political ambition and "will for power" (to use Nietzsche's phrase) knew that reaching for taboos ("the forbidden fruit") presents a challenge for everyone (Vienna is not by coincidence the birth-place of Freud's psychoanalysis.). He was the first one to openly (although always in somewhat unclear circumstances - praising Nazism very openly is too dangerous and counterproductive, after all) raise this issue in a context that was not the one of basically "sweeping the dust under the carpet," which had been the usual Austrian attitude ever since the end of the Second World War. Austria never entirely dealt with Nazism. Rather than treating it as a misfortunate legacy, about the horrible and unacceptable nature of which there is a broad consensus, it opted for making it taboo. Germany is a different case; there, the issue has constantly been on the agenda since 1945.

Skilfully mixing all these elements, Haider's rise to power was an easy job. It is not Nazism, xenophobia or racism that are at the core of his interests but a drive for power, in the country where he, obviously, has all the chances of success.

Addressing all these issues, he easily became an agenda-setter, and all the other political forces have done nothing else in the last years but try to catch up to him. Thus, the Social Democrats' immigration policies, introduced in 1997 and embodied in the person of the former interior minister, Karl Schlögl, could have pretty much been taken straight from the FPÖ.

So, there should be no surprise at all at the results of the FPÖ in the October elections and the consequent (logical) entry of the FPÖ into government. It is a consistent consequence of the above facts and the situation which Haider brought about in Austria: no matter what happens, he comes out the winner. It represents one of the rudimentary rules of politics: he who dares, wins. One should also not underestimate the effect of spite: the Austrians elected Kurt Waldheim President in the 1980s in spite of the threat of international isolation - as a kind of proof of national pride.

And what was the reaction of the Austrian media to the recent events and the founding of the new government last Friday?

A brief look at the headlines on the front pages of the three main Austrian dailies on the day after the new government was formed (Saturday 5 February) is already very illustrative:

Der Standard: "Haider's Threat of Veto in the EU Triggers Alarm in Brussels"
Neue Kronen Zeitung: "Street Fights: Many Injured!"
Die Presse: "Railway Workers Announce Strike, Klestil's Appeal: New Government Should Be Given a Chance"

So, one day after the day that basically represented the end of the Second Republic, the newspapers report on the possible strike of railway workers on account of the new government's announced changes to the pension system!

Another, perhaps even more interesting, example of the state of mind in Austria is a subject which the media (both printed and electronic) followed very closely: the possibility that the annual Opera Ball will suffer as a consequence of the international isolation of Austria.

Die Presse on Saturday 5 February (p 5): "Will Even the Opera Ball Be Downscaled?"; ORF2 in the talk show Thema on Monday 7 February: "Commotion in Three-Four Time"; FORMAT, a political weekly, on 7 February, (pp 118-121): "Vienna Opera Ball in Danger"; etc. Former Vice-Chancellor and Chairman of the ÖVP Erhard Busek even offered a very interesting proposal on how to react to the EU's isolation of Austria, initiated by Portugal, the current holder of the EU presidency: "One should boo the Portuguese at the Opera Ball." (FORMAT, 7 February, p 55) (In the meantime, the Portuguese decided to boycott the Opera Ball...)

These illustrations, as amazing as they might seem at first glance, give a very good indication of the situation in Austria. Jörg Haider is defining the discourse, and, implicitly, the politicians and all the others are in a constant state of shock, unable to provide a viable alternative to his agenda and the consequences that his drive for power has for the country and for all of Europe.

Needless to say, this is not the end of Jörg Haider's path. On the contrary, he will most certainly continue to use any means (and rhetoric) to achieve his goals. Austria has practically already fallen victim to him. Will Europe fall as well?

Saša Cvijetić, 11 February 2000


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