Vol 2, No 8
28 February 2000
A U S T R I A:
The Other Austria
On Saturday 19 February, an estimated 200,000 Austrians took to the streets of Vienna to demonstrate against the coalition between the People's Party and Jörg Haider's Freedom Party. The now famous bow-tie of the new Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, served as the symbol of what the crowd was loudly denouncing: "keine Koalition mit dem Rassismus!" (No Coalition With Racism).
In the capital's Heldenplatz that day, the EU flag floated, a sign that for a significant part of the population - despite the widespread feeling that the reactions of Austria's 14 EU partners have been largely exaggerated - "Europe" is still a guarantee against the potential "excesses" of the governmental coalition. A sign that the "other" Austria clearly exists and is expressing its discontentment with the coalition and the international isolation that has accompanied it.
Nevertheless, the new government seems to be here to stay and Schüssel's strategy is to bide time and hope that the protests will slowly die down by themselves.
Significantly, two days before the big demonstration, following the resignation of former Chancellor Viktor Klima, the Social Democrats designated his successor, Alfred Gusenbauer. In last October's parliamentary elections, the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) obtained its worst result since 1945 (33 per cent of the votes), and thus after Gusenbauer's appointment, the news magazine Profil (21 February 2000) immediately wondered: "Where will Alfred Gusenbauer lead the SPÖ?"
The Austrian Social Democratic Party has customarily been seen as a rather traditional left-wing party, closer to Lionel Jospin's French socialists than to Tony Blair's New Labour or even Gerhard Schröder's SPD. Klima was held by most to be a reformer; but the rise of Gusenbauer seems to signal a return to the roots for the party. Unlike his predecessors, the banker Franz Vranitzky and the manager Klima, Gusenbauer is a product of the party apparatus and is usually assumed to belong to its "pragmatic" left faction. The man who once - in his "early" years - imitated the Pope and kissed the ground when his plane landed in Moscow is no obvious friend of the "Third Way."
At the age of 40, he is the youngest chairman of the party since the "founding fathers" Viktor Adler and Otto Bauer. This is in itself significant, because Gusenbauer has made it clear that he does not intend to be a "transition leader" and will stand as the party's candidate for the Chancellery in four years (when the next parliamentary elections are due). Yet this generational change at the head of what remains, after all, the largest political party in Austria must be relativised and put into perspective: Haider took over the Freedom Party in 1986 at the age of 36, and the new finance minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, is only 31.
Gusenbauer has assumed the mantle of the Social Democrats' mythic figure of the Second Republic, Chancellor Bruno Kreisky (1970 to 1983), and has described seeing Kreisky in 1968 - at the age of eight - as one of his earliest and most formative political experiences. "I could, of course, not understand what he was saying. But for me Kreisky was an impressive personality," claimed Gusenbauer in a recent interview. However, claiming to be the heir of Kreisky is certainly not a mark of innovative thinking and is something of a compulsory figure of style in Austrian politics. For a long time, even a certain Jörg Haider talked about Kreisky as one of his role models (to the irritation of the Social Democrats).
Gusenbauer's first and most difficult task will be to re-conquer the traditional working class constituency that the SPÖ has progressively lost to the Freedom Party since 1986: in the October 1999 election, a majority (47 per cent) of workers voted for Haider's movement. It is, of course, too early to say if Gusenbauer is the right man for the job, but it seems clear that a return to old-fashioned Marxist rhetoric would damage the party's chances of returning to power and in the meantime constituting a constructive and efficient opposition.
Worryingly for Gusenbauer, the Social Democrats are also losing their monopoly on the opposition. Under the competent (and reformist) leadership of the University of Vienna professor of economics Alexander van der Bellen, the Greens have been the only parliamentary group to benefit from the post-electoral coalition talks and infighting. van der Bellen is widely respected and has significantly enhanced the profile of the party; recent opinion polls give the Greens between 14 and 16 per cent support. The Greens have also been able to develop useful connections with their sister parties abroad (especially with Germany's Green foreign minister, Joschka Fisher). During a visit to Berlin, van der Bellen made clear that the Austrian Greens, like their German counterparts, are now far more than an "ecology" movement: "the Greens are the only real alternative to this government [the People's Party-Freedom Party coalition]."
In a country traditionally more interested in the opera ball or the success of its skiers than politics, commentators such as Joachim Riedl have argued that Haider has at least been useful for one thing: he has (unwillingly) shaken the country out of its torpor and provoked the awakening of civil society. The international community now has the duty to listen to the voice of this other Austria and open a dialogue with the majority of Austrians who believe that Haider is a disgrace to their country.
The opposite approach - the demonisation of Haider - is problematic and counterproductive for at least two reasons.
Firstly, Haider is a political animal that strives for attention and is getting plenty of it at the moment. As the political scientist Fritz Plasser argues, "Haider is essentially someone whose maxim is confrontation and polarisation. And now he has achieved this with world-wide public opinion... this is invigorating for him." Many observers believe that Haider dreads the day that he will have to return unnoticed to his job as governor of Carinthia, leaving his Freedom Party colleagues to be ministers in Vienna and make a name for themselves. One insider, for example, suggested that were Grasser to prove to be a successful finance minister, he would be in a good position to challenge his superior.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the demonisation of Haider all too often becomes a straight-out - and unfair - demonisation of Austria. This not only reinforces Haider's position but also seems fundamentally unjustified. Yes, it's true that Austria has failed to fully de-Nazify itself after 1945, and yes, there is unfortunately a constituency in the Alpine republic for the intolerant rhetoric of the Freedom Party. Yet this assessment essentially fails to take into account and address the very real reasons behind Haider's success: the now widely derided Proporz system and the necessity to reform the corporatist state.
The international reactions against Austria are also in many ways the product of more or less irrational fears. There is a "racial" prejudice against the "Germanness" of the Austrians and a latent feeling that Austrians are "German" and therefore potentially more "dangerous" than, say, Italians or Belgians. This sentiment is not new; during the talks regarding Austria's accession to the European Union in the first half of the 1990s, there was, in France for example, concern about the possible formation of a "Germanic" block (composed of reunified Germany and Austria) within the EU.
The obvious flaw in such an approach is that the equation "Austria = Germany" simply does not hold. A survey published last week confirms that around 80 per cent of Austrians believe in the existence of an Austrian nation, a figure that has been steadily on the increase since 1945. For many Austrians, joining the EU was actually also perceived as a means to limit the dependence of the country on the German economy and the Deutsche Mark.
What is more, the indictment of the Austrian nation as a whole indirectly gives Haider ammunition and criticises him while flirting with the same kind of unacceptable racist and ethnically based rhetoric he and his party often use.
Austria's past may be loaded with dark and sinister episodes, but the people surrounding me on a cold Saturday afternoon in February were there to ensure that Austria's democracy survives.
Magali Perrault, 26 February 2000
For more analysis of Haider's rise to power and the recent furore over the new Austrian coalition government see:
Sasa Cvijetic's article from 14 February 2000;
Lonnie Johnson's article from 21 February 2000
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