Greens Join Red Vienna

Initial euphoria at the first-ever Center-Left coalition in Vienna leaves uneasiness at sharing power with a four-term mayor

Green Party member Maria Vassilakou, new deputy mayor of Vienna, with long-time mayor, Michael Häupl of the Social Democrats, at the presentation of the coalition agreement on Nov. 12 | Photo: Heribert Corn

Spirits were high among Green party members when long-time mayor Michael Häupl announced on Oct. 22 that the Social Democrats would enter into coalition negotiations with the Green Party following the Oct. 10 elections to the Vienna City Council and District Councils in which the SPÖ had lost its absolute majority only for the second time since World War II. (They had entered into a partnership with the People’s Party from 1996 until 2001.)

Spirits were even higher when Häupl as the new old mayor and Maria Vassilakou, head of the city’s Environmental Party, new Deputy of Vienna and traffic and planning city councilor (Verkehrs-und Planungsstadträtin), presented the signed coalition agreement less than a month later.

In fact, they were soaring! Never before in the country’s history had the Red party entered into a coalition with the Greens, a move many Green politicians felt was long overdue.

“It is great that the SPÖ and Häupl got out of the red-black ghetto,” said Alexander Van der Bellen, a Grand Old Man of the Vienna Greens in a TV debate on Nov. 14.

“It is the most natural thing in the world,“ added Johannes Voggenhuber, former EU parliamentarian for the Greens.

Other European cities have in fact long discovered alternatives to traditional color patterns in the political spectrum. Not only in German cities like Munich, Hamburg and Cologne are the Greens part of the city governments, but also in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Copenhagen.

In Austria, however, Green participation in the government is still a novelty. Although in Salzburg and Linz, the system of flexible majority-building has led to the forging of red-green cooperation, a formal coalition on the state level was opposed by the Social Democrats in 2004.

On the federal level, negotiations with the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) failed, leading to the notorious Black-Blue coalition that governed Austria from 2002 until 2008. Nonetheless, the Greens have generally found the ÖVP an easier partner: Upper Austria has had a black-green coalition since 2003 and the city government of Austria’s second largest city, Graz, has also been led by the ÖVP and the Green Party for more than two years now.

This year, chances for a red-green coalition in Vienna were greater than ever, say experts like Dr. Thomas Hofer, political consultant, journalist and author in Vienna. He attributes this to the surprise effect of a red-green coalition after the mainstream media had mostly predicted a different solution.

In a sense, says Hofer, this is a “coalition of losers,” as the Greens were ranked fourth in the vote, and SPÖ, while still by far the strongest party, lost its absolute majority.

“And this is exactly the charm of this coalition,” he says. “Red-black would have been more of the same; it would have been criticized by almost every stakeholder and would not have added anything new to the political arena,” Hofer tells The Vienna Review.

Häupl decided to go for the Green party as a coalition partner, in part, because it “allows the party to open up – also on the federal level,” says Hofer. So far, only the ÖVP has entered into coalitions with parties other than the Social Democrats, never the other way around.

The fact that the SPÖ youth party as well as the local District Leader favored a coalition with the Environmentalists might also have facilitated the decision-making process.

“From a strategic viewpoint, this coalition was a smart move on Häupl’s part,” says Hofer.

On the other hand, however, the new city government invites attacks by the Freedom Party, which Hofer considers risky. In the blue-collar areas of Ottakring or Favoriten, for example, Häupl will have a hard time explaining to his base why he chose the Greens as the junior partner.

Strache was, in fact, fast to predict “five long years of chaos for Vienna” which will become a “petri dish for left-leftist social experiments,” according to a press release on Oct. 22.

So what are the chances of success for red-green?

”For the SPÖ, this coalition can be a success if they manage to minimize the gains of the FPÖ,” who, Hofer predicts, will use the new government in Vienna to polarize the population even more. Nonetheless, Häupl will go down in history as the mayor who forged the historic coalition of the Social Democrats and Greens – and no one expects Häupl to stay in office for the whole of another six years anyway.

For the Ecologists Party, the stakes are much higher.

“This coalition is the only chance for the Greens to survive on a broader scale. If they don’t, they will slide into a depression,” says Hofer and continues: “They will have to stand their ground. For the Greens, this will mean sticking to the coalition for five years without having major problems with the base.”

An often unpredictable base that has paralyzed the party’s capacity to act on several occasions before. Supposed to ensure transparency and a high degree of participation on the part of the functionaries, the party’s principle of grass-roots democracy has, however, also endangered the success of the elections when district factions of the Greens in Vienna split in May and June this year.

But when the Green party conference gathered on Nov. 14 to cast a vote on the coalition, an overwhelming 98.5% were in favor of red-green, a sign that the rank and file don’t want to go “against their own ideas and their own party anymore,” says Hofer.

“If they are smart, they will try to get as much out of this coalition as possible,” he adds.

The Upper Austria experience has shown how hard it is for small parties to enter into coalitions with a senior partner, who usually turns out to be the big winner. In Upper Austria, Hofer explains, the Greens neither won nor lost anything, and Regional Governor Pühringer of the ÖVP almost reached an absolute majority in 2009 after six years in the black-green coalition.

This is why the Greens will have to be careful not to let the SPÖ take all the credit for the achievements of the coalition, which “will be a tough thing to do,” says Hofer.

At least two or three projects will have to be successful and be communicated as such. The much over-used  term “green signature” that everybody sees is needed.

Maria Vassilakou will have a chance to bring in these green elements in her new assignment for traffic – and planning, with energy and environmental agendas also in her area of responsibility. In this capacity, she replaces Rudolf Schicker, former Executive City Councilor for Urban Development, Traffic and Transport, who was elected new head of the Viennese SPÖ on Nov. 23.

Although plans for a €100 year pass for public transport – a vital part of the Green party’s election campaign – have already been dropped, a range of other ambitious infrastructural traffic projects are outlined in the 78-page long coalition agreement Gemeinsame Wege für Wien (“Shared Paths for Vienna”).

Vassilakou plans to increase cycling’s share of city traffic to 10% and public transport to 40%, thus reducing automobile transit by one third. To this end, the existing system of CityBikes will be expanded to the outer districts of Vienna (see “City on Two WheelsTVR Dec 2010/Jan 2011, p. 22). More green spaces as well as a tenfold increase in solar panels are intended to make Vienna a greener – and more eco-friendly – city.

What could become a possible source of friction, however, is the Lobau Tunnel. A prestige-project of the SPÖ, the tunnel would close the highway ring circling Vienna. While Häupl insists on it, the Greens have spoken out against its construction.

“Traffic is a highly emotionalized issue,” comments Hofer.

And so is integration, which will be the core issue, according to Rainer Nowak, national politics editor of Die Presse and one of the participants of the TV debate on Nov. 14.

In order to tackle challenges of Vienna’s growing migrant population, the city’s new coalition plans to put forth a Charter for Communal Living (“Charta des Zusammenlebens”) in which the “central values of our modern and open society and the rules for a good communal life in Vienna” will be formulated.

While the new partners seem to agree on general phrases, the devil is the details.

When Vassilakou spoke in favor of an abolition of the five-year waiting period for foreigners who want to move into Community Housing in an interview with Die Presse on Nov. 21, Häupl rejected this via Kronen Zeitung.

A foretaste of the things to come?

Generally, “Vassilakou will have to show an ability to compromise, to cut deals,” says Hofer.

Others have a different take on this. Freda Meissner-Blau, a leading figure of the Green movement, told the Austrian daily Der Standard Nov. 8 she worried that “the Greens could be too willing to compromise.”

More generally, the coalition is looked at with skepticism, if not outright distrust.

Political editor Nowak justifies the “Misstrauensvorschuss” – i.e. presumption of doubt, in German a play on words with “benefit of the doubt” – in Die Presse  as coming from what he calls a “thin” coalition agreement with its apparent lack of real content.

Rudolf Bretschneider, pollster at Fessl GfK, moans that “some chapters are really just blah blah.” Especially the economy and finance chapters are evidence of a paucity of ideas (Armutszeugnis) as they lack new economic impulses for the city, he said in a TV debate on Nov. 14.

The Viennese budget for 2011 had already been agreed upon without input from the Greens – due to time constraints, as both parties claimed. When the SPÖ presented its estimates on Nov. 9, the Greens, asserted that they would go along with its central points.

“It seems like the Greens will be responsible for values, and Häupl for money,” Bretschneider mused.

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