Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Austria's recent election and the implications

Werner Faymann, leader of Austria's Social Democratic Party (Socialdemokratische Partei Österreichs, SPÖ), which led in the election results on Sunday

As promised - or as threatened, depending on your perspective - I'm posting more on the Austrian election of this past Sunday, which resulted in the previous five parties in Parliament all returning, with the two far-right parties gaining while the conservative party and the two left parties lost votes compared to their previous experience.

I won't try in this post to go into detail on the particular methods of parliamentary government. But normally in parliamentary systems, either one party has to get a majority - like the Spanish Socialists in their last two elections - or they have to form a coalition, like the current Grand Coalition in Germany of the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD). A party in Austria has to get 4% of the votes nationwide to win any seats in parliament (with a technical exception I won't go into here). Parliamentary seats are allocated to parties based on the proportion of the votes of the parties who met the 4% hurdle.

To form a government, a party or coalition needs a majority of votes in the lower house of parliament, the upper house being elected by state (provincial) legislatures similar to the way US Senators were elected before the 20th century.

The parliamentary parties are as follows. The SPÖ (Socialdemokratische Partei Österreichs) is the social-democratic party, dating back to the 19th century when it was founded by Viktor Adler (who, for trivia fans, lived in the same house in Vienna's 9th district where Sigmund Frued later lived). The social-democrats were the leading advocates of democracy in the Habsburg Empire, and led the democratic revolution of 1918. Parties have long been identified by colors in Europe, a habit the US only picked up after the 2000 election. The SPÖ are the "reds", though they aren't advocating anything like the massive nationalizations currently being pursued by the American "red" Republicans.


The ÖVP (People's Party, Österreichische Volkspartei) is the Christian Democratic Party. In European terms, they are the conservative party. It's better to not even try to compare them with American Republicans. The ÖVP is still thought of as the Catholic party, but the degree of religiosity now required even of Democrats and the level of church-party collaboration seen with the Republicans and the backroom barons of the Christian Right is unheard-of in the ÖVP. Not even close. Party color: black.

Viktor Adler: his soul goes marching on, too, fortunately for Austria

The FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs) is what in European terms would be called a rightwing-liberal party. That concept just doesn't compute at all in American politics. To describe them in a more general way, we could say they are xenophobic and populist-demagogic. Party color: blue. (Definitely not like the American "blues"!) The BZÖ (Bündnis Zukunft Österreichs, Alliance for Austria's Future) is also a rightwing-liberal party. It's a split-off from the FPÖ, and is essentially the personal vehicle for Jörg Haider, governor (Landeshauptmann) of the state of Carinthia. Haider achieve international notoriety in the 1990s as a Mussolini-wannabe with a "yuppie-fascist" style. But basically he's a narcissistic clown who mainly likes to see himself on TV. Party color: orange. Both the FPÖ and BZÖ could be compared to George Wallace's movement of 1968.
Then there's the Green Party, which has become a real force in Austrian politics in the last 10 years. The state of Upper Austria has been ruled since 2003 by a black-green coalition (ÖVP and Greens). Arnold Schwaryenegger's home city of Graz just got a black-green coalition this year, with Green vice-mayor who's openly lesbian. The ÖVP mayor had campaigned against the decadence of homosexuality. He's says he's learning a lot in the new coalition.

The basic problem in Austrian national politics is that the two biggest parties, SPÖ and ÖVP, have been in a Grand Coalition (red-black or black-red) for most of the last 20 years. AS Germany is now experiencing, having the two biggest opposing parties in a coalition together is tough to manage, even though it would seem to be the embodiment of the "bipartisanship" that the American practitioners or High Broderism seem to think is the be-all and end-all of political virtue.

Aside from administrative difficulties, though, it means that neither of the two largest parties can play the role of loyal opposition. What's been happening in Austria is that the FPÖ and BZÖ have been able to be the opposition against the SPÖ-led Grand Coalition that just fell apart, prompting last Sunday's election. If the SPÖ or the ÖVP could form a coaltion with one or more of the other parties, then the other large party could act as the opposition, which would reduce the protest votes going to the FPÖ and BZÖ.

The Greens should have been able to also benefit from protest votes. But their vote percentage actually went down slightly. I think a lot in this case has to do with their current leader Alexander Van der Bellen. He's an obviously intelligent man, but he's scarcely a rabble-rouser. He comes across on TV like a tired old professor.

The breakdown of seats in the new Austrian Nationalrat (lower house of parliament) should break down close to the popular vote results as of this writing, which might change slightly if absentee votes still remain to be counted: SPÖ, 30%; ÖVP, 26%; FPÖ, 18%; BZÖ, 11%; Greens, 10%. Those results were historic lows for the SPÖ and ÖVP.

Since the SPÖ has the largest percentage, President Heinz Fischer (SPÖ) will ask the SPÖ to form a new government. Party leader Werner Feymann initially indicated after the election that he would attempt to make a new Grand Coalition with the ÖVP, which I think is a terrible idea. They just had a Grand Coalition fall apart, albeit with different leaders at the head of the parties than now, and the two coalition parties were hammered in the election results.

The immediate problem is that the SPÖ and ÖVP consider the FPÖ and BZÖ to be such stinkers that neither wants to be in a coalition with them. The SPÖ would need the Greens and the FPÖ to form a majority coalition without the ÖVP. But FPÖ leader H. C. Strache is kind of a thuggish guy. During the election campaign, some photos were published of him participating in military training with weapons with a militia-tzype rightwing group in the woods. As a result, federal prosecutors are currently reviewing whether he should be charged with "NS-Wiederbetätigung", which roughly means "attempting to revive the Nazi Party". That is illegal in Austria. Austria's independence treaty with the US, Britain, France and the Soviet Union actually requires it to ban the Nazi Party.

Now, I can make judgments about Austrian politics without having to rely on the current state of the US practice of democracy. But I do think Americans need to keep some sense of perspective. Strache, the leader of Austria's third biggest party, was screwing around with dumbass rightwingers playing with their guns in the woods when he was 20. Having avoided shooting himself in the foot, his mentality hasn't evolved much beyond that.

But Jesus God, look at what we have in the United States. The President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State are criminals. War criminals for the invasion of Iraq and the torture policy. Remember how the happy gang, including that famous honorable "moderate" Colin Powell, sat around designing in gruesome detail the torture of particular individuals? They have politicized justice in a blatant way. They openly broke the law on surveillance, and got the "opposition"-dominated Congress to give retroactive approval to it. They administered the Iraq contracts is a way so mind-boggling corrupt it would have made the 19th-century robber barons blush. The Republicans are carrying out blatant voter-suprresion activities on a massive scale, using approaches straight out of the Southern segregationist playbook. The Supreme Court overrode the results of the 2000 election to install Dick Cheney and George Bush in power. And the President has claimed and put into proactice the right, so far tolerated by out sad version of a Congress, and only partially challenged by the Republican-dominated courts to disobey any law he chooses, and even to violate the explicit provisions of the Constitution as long as he claims his actions are justified on grounds of "national security". And what isn't involved with national security in our Cheneyized national security state of today?

I really view our current American government as a semi-democracy. We literally would not qualify for membership in the European Union, because we don't meet their minimal requirements for democractic practices and the rule of law.

Getting back to the much smaller problems of Austrian democracy, the ÖVP could theoretically form a government with the Greens and the FPÖ, or with the FPÖ and the BZÖ. But having the FPÖ and the BZÖ in the same coalition would be virtually impossible as a practical matter because of the leading personalities involved, apart from the democratic deficits of the parties.

My preferred outcome of the Austrian government negotiations would be a red-green minority government. That's a real possibility. It would give the reds and Greens a chance to put through some constructive programs and then run on them in the next election. And it would allow the ÖVP to act as the leading opposition party and take protest votes from the FPÖ and BZÖ.

If only our democractic deficits in America were as modest as Austria's ...

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