Dream Time in Vienna

A Veteran Journalist On Austria’s Latest Political Traumas

Wilhelm Molterer and Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer

Vice Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer (ÖVP) and Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer (SPÖ) sharing their dreams of power | Photo: Bundeskanzeleramt

Since the last general election in October 2006, all those involved have been dreaming – and still are: The five political parties, their leaders, the president of the Republic, plus the entire electorate. There seems to be a common and collective refusal to wake up.

The Social Democrats and Al fred Gusenbauer sleepwalked into government totally unprepared, as the negotiations with the conservative People’s Party demonstrated. Never in their wildest dreams did they imagine that the election result would propel them into pole position, responsible for leading a new administration. And as they have shown since, neither Gusenbauer nor his party has arrived at the reality of day-to-day politics.

The conservative ÖVP has not yet come to terms with the fact that its dream of retaining power has inverted into the nightmare of losing it. Wolfgang Schüssel & Partners still act as if it were business as usual, as if the defeat of October were nothing more than a profound misapprehension by the electorate. The latest event, the meeting to determine the future vision of the party, was proof enough. To talk about an inevitable victory at the next elections four years from now, just five months after an evitable defeat at the polls, signals more than a total loss of the grip on reality. It shows a party caught in prolonged dreamtime.

The two coalition parties of the present Austrian government are joined in their wishful thinking by the three groups in opposition: The Greens, the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) and its spin off, the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ), Jörg Haiders creation and political prey. Against all odds, the young BZÖ still dreams of a bright future. But once severed from the main torso, the life expectancy of any separate political body-part is traditionally very short in Austria.

On the other hand, the FPÖ could, until recently, rightfully hope to attract enough Social Democratic voters severely disappointed by the choices their party had made, the broken promises and political sacrifices, to achieve a majority government by the grace of the ÖVP. However, that hope was largely shattered by the recent internal catfight over who is or was more susceptible to right-wing extremism – Heinz Christian Strache or Ewald Stadler.

Not even the Greens resounding victory over previous elections justifies daydreaming of still joining the government. They slept through the brief window of opportunity in early November to support a social democratic minority government ready to return to the polls again this spring for a centre left government of SPÖ and Greens. When their leader Alexander van der Bellen woke up, the window had already been closed, and the Grand Coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP was well under way with the blessing of President Heinz Fischer. Fischer himself had his own agenda: to demonstrate his influence by first urging, then moderating and finally enforcing the political cooperation of the two major parties.

All this leaves the Austrians in a state of dreamy disbelief: For whatever reasons, their decision in October 2006 was a clear signal that they wanted a break from the highhanded practice of the government of the last six years, a change from an ÖVP forced to come so far down from the high moral ground Wolfgang Schüssel had established for his party. If voters had wanted otherwise, the losses would have been less substantial.

What the Austrians are getting now – no matter for how long – is a government with a wishy-washy program that has neither a social democratic nor a conservative signature, neither a vision nor an existential project such that only these two parties could implement. This government offers neither a firm commitment nor a strong political will to reform the two main areas in Austria that need the most radical changes: the abolition of the excessive and much too costly federalism, totally outdated for a member state of the EU, and reform of the electoral laws, totally obsolete in times when quick and flexible decisions are needed.

The comforting thought, however, is this: The consequences of political decisions in Austria of today are nearly irrelevant in this EU era, and certainly never a matter of life or death, as in earlier times. And anyway, modern day Austrians like their sleepy world. The new government can be expected to guarantee this – at least for a while.

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