The Austrian Far Right A Grand Coalition Fails, Leaving Room for Radicals

Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer's term in office has ended in fiasco amid infighting, tactical errors and his own overestimation of himself. The populist, far-right Freedom Party will benefit: It has good prospects in Vienna for the first time since the Jörg Haider era.
Von Marion Kraske und Walter Mayr

It was the last time that the two political teams would meet, at least with their current lineups. Germany and Austria had sent the crème-de-la-crème of their respective administrations to a summit between the two countries' grand coalition governments, held on June 16 at Vienna's Ernst Happel Stadium. The chancellors, vice-chancellors and defense ministers of both countries -- conservatives and Social Democrats -- were there.

Quarrels on the respective home fronts, complaints over political gridlock and fears over early elections were momentarily forgotten. Football was on the agenda. Germany beat Austria 1:0. For the heavyset man in the red and white scarf sitting next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, it was a sign of things to come.

Only hours earlier, Alfred Gusenbauer, 48, had been forced to resign as his party's leader. Now his real dream job, that of chancellor, is also about to end. Last month Austria's conservative People's Party (ÖVP) declared that its coalition with the Social Democrats had failed. Gusenbauer has announced that he will not seek another term.

But was it also a sign for Germany and for Angela Merkel? In each country, the last term of government has been marked by an awkward "grand coalition" between the major parties of the left and right. In Vienna and Berlin, they both tackled similar problems: health reform, tax and pension reform, and a redistribution of responsibilities between the federal and state governments. In Austria, though, the coalition parties managed to agree on only minor issues, such as lowering the voting age to 16 and an extension of the legislative period.

But the parallel between the two countries may stop at Gusenbauer's political demise. His fall from power shows the difference between Merkel, an expert in the mathematics of power, and her witty but aimless counterpart in Vienna.

Genius and Mediocrity

In February, months before he was toppled, Gusenbauer gave the Austrian people a dark foreboding of things to come during an interview with the Vienna city paper Falter. Choosing words from Saint-Just's last speech in defense of Robespierre, Gusenbauer said: "The coalition of mediocrity is bringing the genius to the scaffold."

There was a clear sense within the coalition of who was meant to be the genius: Gusenbauer. Secret documents detailing plans to bring down the government were revealed in Vienna the following month. The conspirators came from the camp of the conservative party, Gusenbauer's rivals in the coalition. But by April, Gusenbauer's own party, the SPÖ, was in an uproar. He was soon replaced as party leader, and the coalition fell apart.

Hans Dichand was pleased. At 88, the powerful publisher of the Kronen-Zeitung newspaper is still Austria's supreme shaper of political campaigns. Dichand had been writing opinion pieces for months under the pseudonym "Cato" against the EU's new Lisbon Treaty. By signing that document, Dichand argued, the government had sacrificed the country's sovereignty. Dichand is a figurehead of Austria's anti-EU movement, and Gusenbauer's downfall is his triumph.

As recently as late June, advisors warned Gusenbauer not to be pulled around "by a nose ring" at the paper's editorial office just to boost his popularity among Austrians. But 43 percent of Austrians read the Kronen-Zeitung, and recent opinion polls showed the chancellor with only a 16-percent approval rating. So the chancellor signed an open letter to Dichand, announcing referendums for future EU treaties. It was a 180-degree turn for Gusenbauer.

Dichand acknowledged this gesture of submission and thanked the chancellor, using the royal we: "We have become stronger, as we calmly continue the struggle for our fatherland, Austria -- with new friends." A short time later, Gusenbauer saw his old friend Werner Faymann -- who, as minister of infrastructure, advertised regularly in Dichand's paper -- promoted as the SPÖ's candidate for chancellor in this year's new elections, which are slated for Sep. 28.

Gusenbauer had been punished for eating humble pie.

The Rise of the Right

The chancellor is a seasoned a politician. The well-meaning interpret his downfall as clumsy, while everyone else chalks it up to a lack of social intelligence. There are, in fact, many reasons for the premature end to Gusenbauer's political career.

First, he has a troubled relationship with provincial party leaders. The lineup of SPÖ luminaries in Austria's nine states is headed by the cunning Michael Häupl, mayor of Vienna for the past 14 years. He excels as a mouthpiece of popular opinion, and after the party suffered stinging defeats in state elections, Häupl and others felt Gusenbauer could jeopardize their own prospects for reelection.

Because the lonely chancellor also picked quarrels with union leaders, students and powerful members of the media during his brief 18 months in office, he lost the necessary support for his battle against the real enemy, his coalition partner, the conservative ÖVP. Under the discreet leadership of Wolfgang Schüssel, the ÖVP was more adept at tactical games.

SPÖ officials say that Gusenbauer grossly underestimated the influence of the conservative former chancellor, who still believes that his surprising failure to win reelection in 2006 was a mistake, and who made his feelings clear to the coalition partner on a daily basis. They are convinced that Gusenbauer believed that he could "moderate" the work of governing but was "taken to the cleaners."

Meanwhile, the populist right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), led by Heinz-Christian Strache, has delved deep into the ranks of blue-collar workers, the unemployed and energetic pensioners who spend their days complaining about rising prices and the power-hungry bickering of the "big parties." Strache and his FPÖ have nationwide approval ratings of 20 percent. The young upstart politician -- who once staged paramilitary games with fellow gun enthusiasts in the forests of the Austrian state of Carinthia and was affiliated with the now-banned neo-Nazi Viking Youth group -- uses well-tried methods to win popular support. He calls for more social services for the needy, he agitates against Brussels EU "dictates," and he inveighs against foreigners using slogans like "Daham statt Islam" (Home, not Islam) and "Deutsch statt nix versteh'n" (German, not "I don't understand").

Strache's political mentor, Jörg Haider, turned the FPÖ into the country's second-largest party using similar rhetoric less than nine years ago -- and helped make Wolfgang Schüssel chancellor. After the September election, Strache hopes to influence the shape of a new government. And his prospects are good.

The Grand Coalition Habit

Among the oddities of Austrian politics in the last 20 years have been the strong gains made by the far-right FPÖ in times of grand coalitions. They are so significant that the best Austrians can hope for, if they want to keep the FPÖ out of government, is a return of the grand coalition. Wolfgang Schüssel came to a different conclusion in February 2000 -- he brought Haider's followers into his government. Schüssel's successor, Wilhelm Molterer, is keeping all options open for September.

In Germany, grand coalitions are considered a rare, sluggish, unfortunate compromise. In Austria they're a rule of thumb, and for more than half of the postwar era, the two popular parties have ruled the nation jointly. As a result, Austria has seen decades of social calm and only cautious reform.

For decades, though, social philosopher Norbert Leser has castigated the mega-coalition of the ÖVP and the SPÖ, which has become the Austrian state, as the symbol of a "captive democracy." Leser argues that by strenghening the center -- where the government benefits are hoarded -- the grand coalition drives many disgruntled voters to the fringes.

But there is no sign of any immediate change. After voters weigh in on Sep. 28, an avid supporter of grand coalitions will call the shots: Heinz Fischer, the Austrian president and, for almost half a century, a man who has lived in the orbit of Austrian power.

Fischer has managed for decades to stay "at the top in the middle of a mountain of political corpses," Leser writes. By virtue of his office he could stand in the way of any coalition he dislikes. In the fall of 2006 he refused to swear in an SPÖ minority government in a coalition with the Green Party and the FPÖ.

Strache, on the other hand -- the eloquent young rightist -- is convinced that the FPÖ's rise to power has long been inevitable. During the "implosion of the government" engineered by the ÖVP, Strache says, the SPÖ somehow managed to lose the chancellor. But Strache hasn't lost his forked tongue. Last May he said the portly bon vivant Gusenbauer, after leaving politics, could at least lend his name to red wine.

What sort of red wine?

"With a heavy finish," said Strache.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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