Chancellor in Name Only

Ever since his childhood when he was playing in the sandbox, Alfred Gusenbauer had dreamed of one day becoming Austrian chancellor. And then, an upset victory in October 2006 turned his dream into reality.

But only 17 months into his tenure as head of a fragile coalition government, a revolt within his Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) has threatened to prematurely end his political career. So Gusenbauer responded with a tactical retreat: He gave up most of his real power by resigning as party leader, in order to hold on to his cherished job as chancellor.

The move is expected to aggravate the turmoil in Austria’s largest political party, which now has to cope with dual leadership. And most analysts predict that Gusenbauer’s ultimate defeat is only months away.

The crisis in the SPÖ has a personal and a structural aspect. Gusenbauer was always seen as an accidental party leader. He was picked as a compromise candidate after the defeat in the 1999 elections. He is respected for his intelligence and stubbornness, but widely criticised for arrogance and a tin ear when it comes to the mood of both the public and within his party. Over the years, Gusenbauer has faced plenty of challenges, but no clear challenger who has had the talent, the support and the will to take him on.

Still, his career might have been scuttled earlier if he had failed for a second time to unseat conservative chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel in 2006. But Schüssel’s People’s Party (ÖVP) lost heavily, and the SPÖ came out narrowly on top. In the subsequent coalition talks, Gusenbauer’s main goal was the chancellorship, and for that he allowed the ÖVP to take most other key cabinet posts and abandoned most campaign promises.

Discontent with this result from his own party colleagues marred Gusenbauer’s term from the start. He steadily lost popularity, as he showed poor leadership skills and managed to upset his closest supporters by a series of condescending remarks.

When the SPÖ lost badly in regional elections in Lower Austria and Tyrol, party heavy weights in the provinces, like Vienna Mayor Michael Häupl, and Salzburg regional Governor Gabi Burgstaller, concluded that they were also politically doomed if Gusenbauer remained at the top.

In a turbulent meeting of the party board, Gusenbauer himself proposed to make infrastructure minister Werner Faymann, who was seen as the only credible challenger, the new party chairman.

This is in a way a bold move: A split between the leadership in the governing party and the cabinet is highly unusual in Austria, where the constitution gives the chancellor very little direct control over his cabinet. Gusenbauer will be forced to consult with Faymann on every substantial government decision. But at least he can continue representing Austria in European meetings and travel abroad.

The advancement of the affable Faymann is unlikely to satisfy Gusenbauer’s critics who are demanding that the party sharpen its leftist profile. In theory, it should bring some calm to the turbulent coalition, where the SPÖ and ÖVP have been squabbling over almost every issue, from pensions and health care to taxes. Faymann is known for his pragmatic streak and has been in charge of coordinating all coalition issues together with environmental minister Josef Pröll, a young hopeful in the People’s Party.

But the opposite may also be true, and Faymann needs to develop his own style quickly if he wants to avoid Gusenbauer’s fate –which suggests a tougher stance in inner-coalition negotiations.

Here the structural problems for the SPÖ would come into play. Traditional leftist demands are popular, but given the constraints of globalization and the resistance of the ÖVP, they have few chances of realisation. That leaves SPÖ voters easily disgruntled and ready to desert the party for unprincipled populists like the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ). And given that the SPÖ has the chancellorship, voters will tend to hold the party responsible for the performance of the government as a whole. And while constant squabbling hurts both parties in the polls, it all but destroys the “chancellor bonus” that Gusenbauer’s predecessors enjoyed.

Perhaps the ÖVP will use the crisis in the SPÖ to end the coalition and call for snap elections in order to regain the chancellorship it lost in 2006. But the main winners are likely to be the small opposition parties, in particular the FPÖ, which is widely viewed to be unfit to govern. That would force the SPÖ and ÖVP back into their awkard partnership, but this time with less parliamentary support than now.

The only way out of this dilemma may be a majority-voting system that would allow the largest party to govern alone. A growing number of comentators and political scientist favor that option, but in a cautious society like Austria, the chances for such a radical electoral reform are extremely slim.


Dr. Eric Frey is Managing Editor of the Austrian daily Der Standard and Austrian correspondent for the Financial Times and the Economist. He has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Vienna and an MA in International Relations from Princeton University.

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