The Nation’s Critic

Anton Pelinka: “The ÖVP has the Image of Being a Bad Loser.” And for the SPÖ, “Nothing is as Successful as Success Itself.”

Political analyst Anton Pelinka spends a lot of time commuting. A tenured professor of political science at the University of Innsbruck, he also spends a lot of time in Budapest, lecturing at the Central European University, or in the offices of the Institute for Conflict Research on the Heumarkt in Vienna where we met on a Friday morning.

Anton Pelinka at the Institute for Conflict Studies am Heumarkt in Vienna‘s 3rd District | Photo: Alexandra Ruths

Having worked as a lecturer and author for the past 20 years, in 2005 Pelinka was rewarded with the “Preis der Stadt Wien” (Prize of the City of Vienna) for the humanities and sociology. “Anton Pelinka’s work is and has been an impulse for the intellectual life in Austria,” said Christian Ehalt, state secretary for the cultural department of the city of Vienna. “He knows that government and society need criticism!”

Having ushered his guests to a comfortable place on the sofa, Pelinka went to the office opposite to grab some glasses and a bottle of mineral water before we settled into a wide-ranging discussion of Austrian politics and the changes in the air.  Ultimately, he suggested, the success of the next phase may hinge on Austria’s ability to redefine itself in an era of mobility and internationalism, and rethink the meaning of immigration.

The immediate issue, however, was the new government, and what solution was possible after such a close election with the SPÖ at 35.34% of the vote just barely gaining back a plurality over the ÖVP with 34.33%.

Pelinka sees two probable directions: Either a grand coalition, new elections in early 2007. A third option, a minority cabinet, would only defer new elections in the end, he said.  Regardless of the Green Party’s unwillingness to work with the BZÖ or the FPÖ, Austria unlike Scandinavian countries has little experience with minority cabinets, workable only with a clear sense of purpose and common agreement on a budget. Besides the only time Austria were temporarily governed by a minority cabinet, was after the elections of 1970. Back then, even though the SPÖ led by Bruno Kreisky won plurality, the previous ÖVP government headed by Joseph Klaus was replaced by a minority cabinet which however was rather short lived. Only 18 months later, Kreisky called for new elections and won the absolute majority, remaining chancellor of Austria until 1983.

Against this background a Grand Coalition is more likely. Even after the trouble loaded coalition negotiations of Monday night, Pelinka insisted that the Grand Coalition remained the best option. “New elections in early 2007 would be very risky for all parties especially for the ÖVP and BZÖ,” he said.

“The ÖVP has got the image of being a bad loser,” Pelinka said, “and not giving in or agreeing on compromises could be seen as provoking new elections. Generally people tend to ‘punish’ the party that is perceived as being responsible for new elections,  hence the SPÖ could be tempted to wait, hoping for the BZÖ rate to drop under the required 4%” for entry into the parliament. This would clear the way for a Red/Green coalition. Not a very waterproof plan, though, Pelinka agreed, for those 4% would most likely vote either for the ÖVP or the FPÖ.

One of the puzzles of the recent election was the sharp decline in ÖVP voters, usually explained as the result of voters staying home on election day. But Pelinka isn’t so sure. He suspects that many former ÖVP voters simply went for the opposition parties.

“The message for the ÖVP is a very ambivalent one,” he said. “On the one side they get punished for being too liberal and on the other side for not being liberal enough.”

Pelinka is more forgiving than some about Schüssel’s 2000 decision to form a coalition with the FPÖ, a move which gave him the chancellorship over an SPÖ plurality. The FPÖ was so weak, it was really “a one man party disguised as a coalition.” In 2003, however, there was no continuing logic for the same constellation. By then, the FPÖ was only one of three possible partners for the top vote getting ÖVP. This lack of transparency may have sparked resentment now visible among renegade ÖVP voters.

As to the FPÖ today, Pelinka was convinced that “H.C Strache will not want to be part of the government yet, for the FPO can only succeed from the outside being in an opposition not from the inside.”
Even though Pelinka didn’t think Schüssel was to blame for loosing plurality status, he emphasized that the chancellor was “always respected but never loved, unlike [former chancellors] Kreisky or Vranitzky, who were both loved and respected.”

Though a successful diplomat on EU level, Schüssel was never popular among his own ministry staff – a stark contrast to his predecessor Erhard Busek, who was loved by both his staff and the press for his entertaining and outspoken manner. Schüssel has been “der Schweigekanzler – the silent chancellor,” Pelinka said, adding that Schüssel always got an ‘A’ for professionalism, but much lower grades from the public.

Naturally, the question remains whether the abilities to entertain or to come across as an approachable, warm hearted politician are crucial for leading a country. In the television age, Pelinka thinks they are, at least to some extent. “To the public, Schüssel always seemed a little bit too perfect.”

Pelinka also doubted the chancellor would settle for being number two in the new government.

“Schüssel will not be vice chancellor under Gusenbauer,” he said. “If he does, that’s because he hopes to reverse [the] Oct. 1st [election result] and become chancellor again.” Schüssel’s wisest course after signing  a coalition agreement, he suggested,  would be to retire from politics altogether.

The return to the chancellorship for the SPÖ raises the inevitable question of whether the party has been changed by the years in the opposition.  “The SPÖ has never been completely out of power,” Pelinka said. “They were quite successful on the second level of Austrian politics,” with governorships in several of the Austrian regional governments.

As to whether the Oct. 1st election could be considered a real turning point for the red party, he was ambivalent.

“In 2000, the SPÖ party lost their leading government position for the first time in 30 years, this came as a shock,” he said, “They have won back a plurality now, and they see their chance to get back what they had prior to 2000.”

However there is no way to practice politics as in the ‘good old days,’ Pelinka said. “In the 1970s the SPÖ was much more of a working class, blue-collar party than it is today, where a substantial part of their voters consists of the prosperous, progressive middle class – the so called ‘BOBOS,’ the Bohemians Bourgeois.”

Whatever happens, the SPÖ has limited options. In a grand coalition, Pelinka said, “the SPÖ will have to adhere to the rule of not creating too much of a budget deficit, hence there is not much space for them to maneuver.”

He sees Gusenbauer on the whole as an asset, because of his experience as a member for the Parliament for more than a decade. Although there are difficulties.

“Nobody doubts his intelligence and experience, however to be successful he will have to combine those two with an openness in respect to taking advice- something Gusenbauer is said to be resistant to,” Pelinka said. The media’s treatment could be decisive. Already quite an authority in his own party, Gusenbauer’s ratings in opinion polls rose after October 1st.

“It seems there is nothing as successful as success itself,” Pelinka concluded. But a chancellor is “just a minister among the others,” Pelinka said. “It is a wrong assumption that a chancellor is the leading power, particularly in a grand coalition.” The individual ministers are rather powerful in their respective fields, their sovereignty depending only on the budget itself – which explains the powerful status of the minister of finance.

As to the ministries, “everything is open,” Pelinka said, with a few caveats. He expects the ministries of defense and agriculture to he held by the ÖVP, “simply because the SPÖ doesn’t have any interest in them,” while the SPÖ will want to have one of their for the ministry of education.

Pelinka sees it as “a good sign” that so far neither the SPÖ nor the ÖVP seem to be set in their positions.

“Above all a Grand Coalition will need a dramatic agenda,” Pelinka explained, “one that seems interesting and compelling to the public.”  And while globalization has reduced the importance of national governments generally, Pelinka sees most Austrians as feeling quite well off.

“They have good reasons to be structurally conservative,” he said.

“What the grand coalition could do,” Pelinka said, “is to define and design an efficient migration policy. “Austria still has this polite lie that it is not an immigrant society. Of course it is an immigrant society,” he insisted, “but we are getting exclusively the ones escaping deep economic catastrophes.”

Among others Austria absorbed more immigrants per capita from the former Yugoslavia than any other country, and continues to take in large numbers from the former communist countries of Eastern, Central and South Central Europe, as well Turkey and the Middle East.

But while this is a rich country and can absorb a lot of new comers, this is too passive a strategy, he warned. What Austria needs now is “to compete successfully for the immigrants we need.”

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