The Very Green (Political) Machine

The Austrian Greens Are Now a Mainstream Party Successfully Competing For Votes

Green parties around the world have grown from having platforms strictly concerned with environmental polices, attracting only minorities as constituents, into parties that are capable of competing for votes. In Austria, too, despite the progress, the Green Party until recently, remained a minor opposition party.

Under the guidance of Van der Bellen, the Greens have developed a stronger economic programme | Photo: Daniel K. Gebhart

But things changed when the Greens won 11% of the vote in last year’s elections, resulting in a record 21 seats.  For the first time in Austrian history, Die Grüne surpassed the Freedom Party to become the third largest in the nation, and thus also for the first time, their influence is beginning to be noticed.

“The Greens are now an established political party successfully competing for votes,” said professor and political commentator Anton Pelinka. “In order for the two major parties (the SPÖ and ÖVP) to discourage their electorate from voting for the Greens, they have to be ‘green’ themselves in certain areas.  The party’s influence on a national level is unquestionably growing.”

However, not all is well, argue senior party members, who notice a fatigue by desperately mainstreaming their political positions. Newcomers of the 1990s like current party leader Alexander van der Bellen and Eva Glawischnig, would not stand a chance today, they argue.

When compared to elsewhere in Europe, the Austrian Greens are also doing well. In France, the Netherlands and Hungary, the initial percentage of voters going green is not only smaller, but actually declining. The Austrian Greens have the highest voter quotients in all of Europe, and save for the 1995 election, have been gaining votes steadily since their beginnings in the early 80s. High percentages are counted in Voralberg, Tyrol and in Vienna’s 7th District. But it is in Upper Austria that the real influence has grown, and the party is currently in a ruling coalition with the ÖVP.

This success is even more impressive when looking at the turbulence the party suffered in its early years. Die Grünen, first attempted to run in the general election of 1983, but failed to win seats in parliament. At this time, the green movement was divided into the leftwing Die Grüne Alternative and the rightwing Vereinigte Grüne Österreichs. Then in 1986, after various parties associated with green politics united to form the Die Gruene, the party won 8 seats out of the 183 available in Parliament. Since then, the party has, save for the election in 1995, always gained votes.

To be successful as a political party, there has to be more than a promise of a greener environment. The pillars for the Green Party thus quickly went deeper, beyond the environment to include social responsibility generally, grass root democracy and feminism, as well as policies aimed at helping immigrants, minorities and the underprivileged.

Today, the Greens also have a stronger economic programme. Under the guidance of Alexander Van der Bellen, the party leader, a socio-economic tax reform proposal intended to make environmentally unfriendly fuels more expensive was proposed several years ago. As part of the proposal, employment taxes for private companies should be reduced, thus encouraging more jobs without creating higher costs for employers. The Greens also believe private households should be subsidised to meet the growing expenses of friendly and renewable fuels.

Critics say the party has been a lot of talk and much less action. But then again, even though they haven’t been in government, many of their agendas have been carried to Parliament.

“Two to three years ago we started our renewable energies campaign and now the whole world is talking about it,”  Van der Bellen said with satisfaction on the ORF “Sommergespräch” Aug. 24. The Green Party had gone, he said, from only suggesting to actually changing political interests and opinions. But at the same time, some feel the Green Party has become increasingly just another conventional party.
Van der Bellen disagreed.  People simply expect more of the Greens, he said.

“On the outside we might be more civic, but in the content we still are a radical party,” Van der Bellen said, “For example in education policies, energy policies and the role of women.” But the Green Party itself has become more responsible than it was in the past. “We are not jumping through burning hoops anymore,” Bellen commented.

Yet some of the senior Green Party politicians argue that the party has indeed become “a copy of the social democratic party apparatus,” keeping its parliamentarians in line with phone text messages, according to Johannes Voggenhuber, Member of the European Parliament, in an interview with the Falter. The Greens “are infected with a dangerous fatigue,” said Voggenhuber, who was one of the earliest proponents in Salzburg, criticising the party leadership and strategists for practicing “politics of the wind tunnel” by which every political position is adjusted to the political mainstream.

However, Van der Bellen was reluctant to answer questions about the party’s internal discussions as he preferred to talk about political goals and energy policies, doubling the highway tolls and raising taxes on energy.

Christoph Chorherr, former party leader in the 1990s, worries where the “Van der Bellens and Glawischnigs of tomorrow” will come from,  that the political fatigue is evidently complemented by the “fatigue of personnel.” All in all, the future for the Green Party in Austria seems bright, and as it continues to attract voters they might convince others, tired of parties uncommitted to making a difference, to join the bandwagon.  Yet, in order to keep the support they already have, they must also be able to perform.

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