Polling Day

A Day in the Life of an Upstanding Citizen: ‘They Could Smell my Liberal Tendencies’

Sunday. Ugh. After waking up and nursing the painful consequences of the previous night, I was determined to vote. The way over to my local polling station was beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of pensioners in lederhosen. They eyed me suspiciously, and I took my place in line.

I think they could smell my liberal tendencies.  After casting my vote, I went back to bed… only to be woken up by a friend at around 15:00 in the afternoon.

“Dude, you won’t believe this! The SPÖ is leading!”

I rubbed my eyes. The Socialist Party ahead? This was worth waking up for. I pulled on my clothes and made my way over to my friend’s house to join the usual suspects in front of the TV where they were all intently following the outcome of their votes. I was greeted by an empty bottle of wine, green promo balloons covering most of the floor and one passed-out corpse on the couch, face and hands painted in patches of red and green.  Undecided.

I grabbed a beer and quickly got into the spirit. At 17.00, the results were pretty much clear: The current government would not be in power again. Basically that meant a reform of the educational system, and more precisely the booting out of former arts-and-crafts teacher and current education minister, Elisabeth Gehrer.   That alone was grounds for euphoria!

The downsides were the fact that the FPÖ got more votes than the Green party, and that the BZÖ appeared to have made it into the Parliament. We watched some interviews where dogged reporters did their best to pry answers from the candidates about possible coalitions. In European countries, political parties are remarkably clear about what kind of coalitions they are willing to commit to, and they wage their campaigns according to that goal. It’s the same in all countries…

Well not exactly! In one very small country in the heart of Europe, there is fierce resistance to doing anything straightforward. Austrian political parties have a tradition of leaving all options open until the very last minute, or even after the last minute, and only decide on coalitions when there is no other way out.

Bored by the questions as much as by the answers, we decided to wander over for a look at the SPÖ tent set up for the celebrations in the plaza beside the Burgtheater, next to SPÖ headquarters. We were greeted by the thundering cheers of thousands of crazed supporters. It was deafening. The madness finally died down a little when the ORF’s cameras were turned off, but over all, the mood was exceptional: Free wine, beer and munchies passed out like the loaves and the fish to the crowd of almost 3,000 people, most sporting red tee shirts, hats or scarves, in a throbbing mass of euphoric solidarity. Eventually they started singing “the internationale.”

 

“So comrades, come rally

And the last fight let us face

The Internationale 

unites the human race”

 

Wow. I was expecting to see Hammer and Sickle flags being hissed, Gusenbauer changing into a Maoist uniform and the former government lined up and accused of being bourgeoisie. My daydreams were interrupted by some girl in a red shirt taking my empty Krügerl, just to exchange it for a fresh one.

In the end, the Socialists managed to get 35.4%, 1.5% more than their fiercest rival, the Austrian People’s Party  (ÖVP) with 34.2%. But in Vienna, of course the difference was much larger: the SPÖ with 41.8% had more than twice the tally of the ÖVP with 20.8%, and the Greens a sovereign 14.4%. Chancellor-to-be Alfred Gusenbauer, beaming from ear to ear, and jubilant Vienna Mayor Michael Häupel shouted cheers to the crowd before being rushed offstage to yet another interview or debate.

Still, it was hard to take it in. Nobody had expected a Socialist victory, after the BAWAG-ÖGB scandal of union-bank fraud that had dominated the media for the last few months. Their success seemed to be partially the result of running an excellent campaign – on a platform of a ‘Return to Fairness’ – and the mistakes of their rivals. The ÖVP has relied too much on the prestige of  incumbent Wolfgang Schüssel. And underestimated the frustrations with and under-funded school system and a crumbling university. And perhaps it is just easier to create a powerful, biting and topical campaign from the backbench.

The celebrations were still in high gear as we took our leave. But it was good to share the high, knowing we had months of tedious coalition talks ahead of us and the dreaded deadlock of an SPÖ-ÖVP grand coalition.

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