Man in Black

The Recent Regional Election in Lower Austria was More ‘American’ than Ever

The last regional election in Lower Austria on Mar. 9 was the most Americanised and thus the most un-Austrian election one so far. As for any governor in the US, it followed a very tight script that had only one message: “Erwin Pröll, Incumbent.”

There was no mention of his party, the ÖVP, and there had been a massive infusion of party funds to add one percent to their 53.3 percent majority since the last election. None of these trends are new to Austrian politics but never before had they been executed with such perfection.

Anyone not familiar with the Austrian political system might have thought the election was about the Landeshauptmann (alias Governor) and not his party. Who would have guessed that there were actually four parties on the ballot, two of which a forced by the constitution to form a regional government with the majority party, the ÖVP? It was all about the “Man in Black,” as Erwin Pröll had presented himself in one of the previous elections. Neither his party’s name nor its logo was anywhere to be seen.

The campaign strategy was successful. It will be left to political scientists to figure out how much money was invested per vote to add 0,9 percent to the 2003 election results.

This election was also the most un-Austrian in recent times: First, although it was not a decisive election – the lead of the ÖVP was never in jeopardy – the hype was unprecedented. Never before did thousands of followers, all adorned with blue and yellow scarves, jump up from their seats in a conference hall, throwing their arms up in the air, to hail the party leader. Such staging of a collective emotional outburst in support of a politician has not made it into the ÖVP campaign books to this day.

The second reason it was un-Austrian was the absolute majority. Many journalists and almost all political analysts had predicted that the days of absolute majorities for any one party in this country were long gone. And yet in Lower Austria, the absolute majority of the ÖVP grew even stronger. Not that it mattered, really: Erwin Pröll governs Lower Austria like a lord, benevolently tolerating his opponents in the regional parliament and the regional executive. Still, the mere fact that the ÖVP could add to the cushion of the existing majority made the election result a unique one in present day Austria.

The third reason: Never before had a party heavy weight run a regional campaign in such stark opposition to his own national party. Others have been successful in denouncing the national political acts or decisions but they have always blamed parties other than their own. Pröll distanced himself completely, even from his own friends. Since he succeeded, others will be tempted to follow, which ultimately might change the political landscape.

In the end, however, the election results in Lower Austria have remained inconsequential. The election in Lower Austria had been drummed up as a make-or-break-event for the national coalition government. Surprisingly enough, once the furore was over and the result in, there was no follow up. The story was over, faster than anyone expected.

When Erwin Pröll announced this team for the next five years, the media paid virtually no attention. So what was all the hype about?

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