Election Diary

The Austrian campaign: Propaganda, confusion and the land of Brigadoon

Dardis McNamee

Vienna Review editor Dardis McNamee

Non-Stop Entertainment

In the US, elections are interminable, like an endless shaggy dog story of recurring gags that become funnier – or sadder – through incessant repetition.

In Austria, it’s more hit-and-run, a one-month orgy of political posturing, a sort of  Olympics of propaganda. But it keeps things lively, all part of “Festival Austria”: You know, in June we had the European Cup; in July it’s the JazzFest and Bregenz; in August, the Salzburg Festival. In September, we elect a new Chancellor.

Non-stop entertainment, on time, all the time.       A lot of it takes place on the street. Billboards are everywhere. Which the pollsters say don’t do any good, but I’m not so sure. Images are powerful things, particularly when people pass by in the course of doing something else, like going to work. They’re not actively reading or watching television, and the messages soak in unobserved.

This is a media election.  Take glamour boy Heinz-Christian Strache of the xenophobic FPÖ, a more palatable face for the far-right than the notorious Jörg Haider. Here’s the proof that looks do count; this guy (like Bush) can hardly get to the end of a coherent sentence, but his azure-blue tinted contact lenses and 1000-Watt smile have the Freedom Party somewhere near 20%.

Strache’s latest image gimmick has him sporting a Serbian Orthodox prayer bracelet – bright blue, to match the contacts – on 3,000 billboards all over the country, to convince the Serbian minority that his “Austria for the Austrians” line somehow does not really exclude them. Hard to imagine anyone being fooled by that, although, if they just take it in unconsciously, they may start feeling more comfortable, without really quite knowing why…

Or the awkward, unprepossessing Wilhelm Molterer, of the ÖVP. Now this is a wall-flower. Here’s a guy who walked into the wrong reception, realizes he doesn’t know anybody but can’t think of a graceful excuse to leave.

In such a world of media politics, sadly, Social Democratic Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer probably never had a chance. Intelligence without charisma gets nowhere, and those extra kilos he put on after taking office certainly didn’t help. Smelling weakness, the ÖVP called for new elections.

Now by slight of hand, we’re offered Werner Fayman, former housing administrator, whose pleasant face and responsible smile exude positive qualities. It’s a pretty good face, which is about all anyone knows about him – except for the rumors that he has shoveled millions in taxpayers’ money into advertisements in the mass-circulation tabloid, the Kronen Zeitung – thereby earning the loyalty of publisher Hans Dichand and thus probably the election. Why this is not a scandal escapes me; perhaps it’s just too familiar.

So are there any issues in all this? Well it’s tough. Inflation – which has hit Austria with a vengeance – is at the top of the list. And when it’s next to impossible to get out of a restaurant for less than 30 EUR, Gemütlichkeit itself is threatened!

So halving the MWSt on food – from 10% to 5% – has made the short list of the Social Democrats’ campaign promises, a list of “sweeteners” earning their candidate the nickname of “der Faynachtsmann” – Fayman as Santa Claus. Nobody really believes any of this will happen, no more than the 2004 promise to roll back university fees, which – surprise, surprise – is right back on the list. But hey! No action, no costs! Right?

This is Austria.

 

Confusion

Just over a week to go, and still nobody seems to know what the Austrian election is about. Hardly surprising; it’s been a turbulent year. Western economies are reeling from the sub-prime mess, and Germany, among others, is on the verge of recession. Ireland voted “No” on the Lisbon Treaty; Russia invaded Georgia; and everything is more expensive.

So Austrians are worried – you can feel it. And it is making people harder to fool.

While the new SPÖ chief Werner Fayman swept in strewing social benefits like rose petals along the campaign trail, the Greens reclaimed the high ground by stepping to the defense of imprisoned animal rights activists, and polled voters chose Green Party leader Alexander van der Bellen as the most trusted voice in Austrian politics.

After stumbling badly in the debates, ÖVP leader Wilhelm Molterer managed to regain his footing with voters – who said they preferred “dignity” over the “aggression” of Lower Austrian challenger Josef Pröll’s gambit to make campaign “sugar plums” illegal, a transparent ploy that impressed no one.

Perhaps the oddest thing is the sudden interest in the immigrant vote. Now that a quarter of the Viennese are foreign-born Austrian citizens, this shouldn’t be surprising. But no one outside the Green Party can remember being recruited this way before. The SPÖ shows up in force at ethnic love fests like the Serbian Kolo dancers, and with the ÖVP at the recent MedienMesseMigranten; and now even the far-right Freedom Party is cozying up to the Serbian minority – who at least are Catholic!

By mid month, everyone seemed totally confused. On Saturday morning on the Karmelitermark in the 2nd District, the political parties were out in force, with fliers, free pens and finger food: bread and spreads (very wholesome) for the Greens, gummy bears (highly processed, no nutritional value) for the ÖVP, Manner Schnitten (layers of mouthwatering, ephemeral sweetness) for the SPÖ, who were also serving wine; no free coffee in sight – better not to compete with the cafes, where tables were full.

Balloons were everywhere – red, green, orange and black. Most people had some of each. A little boy stood near the SPÖ table, struggling with a fist full, while his mother sorted through the brochures. She added the red ones to the green, black and orange ones in her hand.

“I’m not sure what to do,” she admitted, “I’ve always voted Green before…” Her voice trailed off. She was holding the new SPÖ leaflet on health care reform, distributed within hours of the release of Linz pollster David Pfarrhofer’s new study giving the health care issue top ranking in the concerns of Austrian voters.

On the ground, a large chart on white packing paper listed the issues, with a space where passersby were straw-voting their priorities in black magic marker. In ones and twos, people kneeled down and put a stroke next to the issue they felt most strongly about: Cost of living; tax reform; health care, student fees; family support payments; free kindergarten; unemployment; crime…

On that day, health care was the clear winner, easily by half. But there were no voter lists, no screening, and nobody was sure if it meant anything at all.

 

Living in Brigadoon

So now the truth is out: Austria really is Brigadoon, that enchanted kingdom in the Highlands where time stands still; the place that appears once every hundred years for a single, perfect and eternal day. There are no troubles here in the Alpine Republic, in this carefree land of plenty and peace, where all relations are personal and every fleeting moment a cause for celebration.

How do I know this? Werner Fayman and Wilhelm Molterer told me so.

“No reason to panic,” SPÖ candidate Fayman asserted in response to the news of the collapse of Lehman Bros., the US’s fourth largest investment bank which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last week from the fallout of the sub-prime mortgage mess. It’s “an American problem,” he insisted, with limited effect on our lives here.

He apparently missed the announcement of Raiffeisen’s €252 million “risk position” in bonds at Lehman and the bank’s comment that “very few major financial institutions are unaffected” – some €600 million altogether in financial institutions nation-wide.

Still, Wilhelm Molterer, if anybody, ought to know better. After all, he’s not just the ÖVP party leader but also Finance Minister and has the inside “scoop” from the crystal ball gazers at the Austrian National Bank, the overseers at the Finanzmarktaufsicht FMA, and several of the big players themselves when they met a few days ago.

He too seems to be living in Brigadoon: Austria’s banks and insurance companies will “hardly be affected, if at all” by the Lehman crisis, Molterer insisted last week, so he advised Austrians to go right on trusting their money to their favorite local institutions, in investment accounts and life insurance policies. Maybe he’s thinking about all those widows and orphans after the investors start jumping out of windows.

Of course, it’s no secret where he’s coming from with all this: A banking system runs as much on faith as on liquidity, and as long as we all keep believing our money is waiting for us at the teller window, there’s a better chance it will still be there.

But politicians who hope to be leaders should not lie to the public, or assume voters are too stupid to recognize a real crisis when it is staring them in the face. This kind of arrogance is a recipe for disaster; I’m an American, I know.  The polls – showing both the SPÖ and the ÖVP below 30% – suggest Austrians are quite clear they are being lied to. In the face of real crisis, it’s stupid to pretend.

Then again, stupidity may just be a contagious disease these days, with Germany’s KfW Bankengruppe transferring €300 million to Lehman on the very day it declared bankruptcy, earning the dubious distinction (and banner headlines in the Bild Zeitung) of being “Germany’s dumbest bank.”

Well, back to Brigadoon: If I remember the story correctly, two American travelers stumble into the village just as a wedding is about to take place, getting involved and, as is our wont, wreaking havoc in paradise. Fortunately, it’s a musical, and everyone lives happily ever after.

Perhaps through a fortuitous constellation of circumstances, Austria will be spared the fate of larger, more exposed economies; the election over, the country will celebrate its next political wedding, and this little operetta, like the musical, will also end well.

With the ATX stocks bouncing around like bungee jumpers off the Donau Turm, Austrians certainly hope so.

Still, it hardly seems responsible for these two Chancellors-in-Waiting to be lying to the public about what is truly at stake.

 

These three columns appeared originally in the German weekly Die Zeit in the final three weeks leading up to the Sept. 28 elections. They appear in English her for the first time.

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