No Alarms & No Surprises

Election campaigns aim for traditional voters, while sidestepping reforms

If it weren’t for all the posters splashing the heads of party frontrunners around the city, few would notice that it’s election time in Austria. In the scorching heat of recent weeks, electoral campaigns have had a very slow start. On 29 September, voters will go to the polls and choose which party or parties will govern for the next five years.

According to experts and analysts, it’s quite likely that the new government won’t differ very much from the old one – even though it’s the first time in Austria’s post-war history that nine parties are listed on the ballot.

“After the last election and on-going joint efforts to handle the economic crises of 2009, it may be hard for current coalition partners, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and Conservatives (ÖVP), to switch to competitive campaign mode. And SPÖ-party-leader and Chancellor Werner Faymann makes no secret of his preference for continuing the Grand Coalition.

So the Reds are keeping their platform within reasonable limits, focusing on job creation programmes and efforts to counter the welfare state’s decline. Faymann also wants to lower taxes on the middle class, financed by reinstating a (quite modest) tax on capital and property – on assets over €1 million.  In short, it’s a traditional SPÖ campaign addressing the core voters of the “Partei der Arbeit” or “Party of the Workers“.

The ÖVP strategists, on the other hand, seem to be all over the place. In an awkward move, conservative and Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger began talking about plans to legalise 12-hour workdays and a higher retirement age for women – a surprising move for a party that claims to represent “those who get up early, work hard and, by the end of the day, want their slice of the cake”.

In fear of anticipated losses on election day, the conservatives are trying to mobilise their base by attacking the SPÖ as weak on the economy and characterising the country as an impoverished business location. Another hot-button issue is the disputed recent deportation of Pakistani asylum seekers [See “Paul Gulda: Improvising A Life of Art And Activism”, TVR, May, 2013], set in motion by ÖVP Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner. Whether this was “accidental” as her party claimed, or meant as a signal to right-wing voters, is unclear.

If the coalition partners lose enough votes, the Greens could be part of a three-party coalition. They have made significant gains at regional elections this year, and now hold seats in five out of nine regional administrations. And the current campaign is much more marketable than earlier ones. Leading candidate Eva Glawischnig points out that the Greens are the only party not implicated in corruption scandals, while the campaign is touring the country on a bio-and-slow-food cooking tour, and advertising with posters showing a lamb and the slogan “weniger belämmert als die Anderen” (“Not as stupid as the others”), a play on words suggesting that the Greens aren’t sheep following the herd.

In the case of the deported asylum seekers at the Servitenkloster, however, Greens supporters were surprised to hear Glawischnig say that deportations, if legal and possible, “can of course be carried out”. Word on the street is that tensions are high on this issue, especially among the party rank and file.

Whether third place will go to the Greens or the Freedom Party (FPÖ), is probably the most interesting question of this election season. FPÖ party chief Heinz Christian Strache’s current cry of “Love thy Neighbour – which for me means our Austrians” has stirred as much criticism as support. Both opinion polls and poor regional results show that his anti-immigration slogans are losing steam.

Instead, the populist momentum is clearly with the Austro-Canadian billionaire Frank Stronach, who is on some sort of a bizarre political ego-trip, posing as an anti-establishment hero and self-made man – when in fact he was bailed out by the Austrian government in the ‘90s. More Liberal voters, however, might prefer the newly founded NEOS (Das Neue Österreich, The New Austria), formed in 2012 from Young Liberal Austria and the old Liberal Forum of Heide Schmidt, likely to pick up votes from the doomed BZÖ (Bundes Zukunft Österreich), the party of the late Jörg Haider. That leaves the rootless and directionless Pirate Party along with the Austrian Communists (KPÖ) – both running with no chance of winning seats.

With election day looming, it’s far from certain that structural problems, like desperately needed administrative reforms or the threatened bailout for troubled banks, will be on the election campaigners’ agenda. Whoever wins a majority faces considerable challenges.

Let’s hope their holidays were refreshing.

 

VR_13_3_p14_headshot_reisingerWerner Reisinger holds an MA in contemporary history.
He works as an editor for ORF and as a freelance journalist.

 

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