Who Needs the SPÖ?

Austria, Like Germany Before it May Find It Has a Chancellor With An Expiration

When Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer (SPÖ) announced a minor reshuffling of the social democratic ministers on June 15, the political commentators were not particularly astonished. The announcement of a split between the positions of a Chancellor (Alfred Gusenbauer) and the SPÖ party leadership (Werner Faymann, to be appointed), however, was a major political development, for which Austria has almost no tradition.

“In a time in which social democrats should be thriving as never before, it has rarely gone worse for them,” Heribert Prantl, editor for Domestic Politics at the influential Munich daily the Süddeutsche Zeitung on June 14. “Everyone speaks of fairness, but the social democrats speak only about themselves.” The irony was, he wasn’t talking about Austrian Social Democrats at all, but the current state of affairs for the German SPD.

Although the two social democratic parties developed under different political circumstances, their situation today is almost identical, reflecting a decline of the social democrats movement in European democracies.

The German SPD is struggling for its political survival – and much more than its Austrian counterpart. It gained some ground in recent weeks, but its approval rating in early June had fallen to an all-time low of about 21 percent. Prantl traces the dramatic decline to the establishment of a populist leftist party, Die Linke, merging the former GDR Communists, the PDS, led by Gregor Gysi, and former SPD chief and finance minister, Oskar Lafontaine. The surprising success of this movement in the Western provinces – which had previously succeeded only in the former East Germany – is forcing new strategies for its position as junior partner in coalition with the conservative CDU led by Angela Merkel

“Who needs the SPD?” Prantl asks provocatively. Who indeed, a majority of the German electorate wonders; its performance has been “without color, form and is simply invisible.”

One of the strategies, adopted in May 2006, was to split the party leadership (currently Kurt Beck) from the government leadership, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. After a year, however the result of this dual concept has been political paralysis.

The Austrian social democrats, on the contrary, are confident, that this dual leadership will give them “more air for the work in government” as Defense Minister Norbert Darabos said in an interview with Der Standard; and reflecting on the current European Football Championships that have taken over Vienna, Chancellor Gusenbauer predicted as “freigespielt” — a move to break clear of the opponent.

The shuffle has brought Gusenbauer confidant Doris Bures, until this month minister for Women’s Affairs and Equality, back to the party headquarters as its manager – yet again – to ensure that in terms of internal and external communications “the party will again pull one string.”

So, will this move be the solution to the political crisis that has left the Austrian social democrats scattered in recent election defeats in Graz in January and Niederösterreich in March 2008?  Or the ones of Tirol in early June that registered a loss of 40% of their electorate?

The current German example raises serious doubts; after all, SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was forced to withdraw as party leader in 2004, opening the way for Angela Merkel in the snap election the following year.

In Austria, Alfred Gusenbauer may now be a Chancellor with an expiration date. And the Austrian social democrats risk being reduced to a middle-sized political party by 2010.

Who will need social democrats then?

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