Readers who have been keeping up with the news feed — or reading the Austrian press — will be aware that Austria is in the throes of a political crisis. The current turmoil began after the presidential candidates put forward by the two parties from Austria’s ruling coalition — the SPÖ and the ÖVP — were eliminated during the first ballot in the presidential election. The remaining candidates are from opposite ends of the political spectrum, the FPÖ (Austrian Freedom Party) and the Greens. Norbert Hofer, the FPÖ candidate, enjoyed a substantial lead in the first round, and is favored to win the run-off, thereby becoming the next president of Austria.
Needless the say, the prospect has given the Gutmenschen of Austria (and elsewhere) a severe case of the Screaming Nazi Heeber-Jeebers. Both European Parliament President Martin Schulz and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker have warned Austrians about electing Hofer as their president. It’s not yet clear whether there will be a repeat of the Haider affair in 1999, with a threat of EU sanctions.
The FPÖ is apparently allowed to exist as a party in Austria; it is just not allowed to govern. The EU will not permit it.
Now Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann of the SPÖ has resigned both his government and party positions in recognition of the debacle brought on by the presidential election.
Some of the worried burghers in Austria are consoling themselves with the thought that it’s possible for the Green Party candidate to win the second round of the elections. After all, most Austrians have enough sense to vote Green instead of for the “right-wing extremist”. Or so the thinking goes.
JLH has translated an op-ed by a writer who doesn’t wear those particular rose-tinted glasses. According to Martin Engelberg, a presidential term for Hofer will give the two mainstream parties the opportunity to clean their respective houses. Then, after the next election, Austria can return to being governed by Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
The translator includes this prefatory note:
Clearly writing from a leftist viewpoint, Engelberg takes a cold-eyed look at the presidential run-off and gives the Green candidate no chance at all. His own suggestion for the renewal of the two ruling parties is a bit pollyannish, and contains at least some elements of what the conservative FPÖ might hope to accomplish, if and when it takes the reins of government. You have to wonder why he believes the people who have caused this havoc will now decide to undo it all.
The translated article from Die Presse:
Exciting Times: Austria Facing Dramatic Upheavals
Norbert Hofer will probably win the May 22nd run-off. The outcry in the international media will be great. But we have to get through that.
by Martin Engelberg
May 9, 2016
The response to my last column (April 26th) was immense. The imagined resignation speeches of the federal chancellor and vice chancellor and the reform proposals for Austria were shared over 4,500 times on Facebook and reached approximately 1.5 million people. Bullseye.
The fact that is clear and recognizable to anyone is that people in Austria long for the changes described in the column and do not trust the governing politicians to bring them about. This will soon lead to great changes in Austria. In the May 22nd run-off, Norbert Hofer will be elected as next federal president with a clear majority. Not because of, but despite his rightist and remarkably “Germanist” mindset.
This is not about a lurch to the right, or even a return to the politics of the 1930s. That is nonsense. And whoever is driving this hysteria is achieving the diametrically opposite effect. They are responsible for the fact that people’s sensibility to such alarms is steadily diminishing. We may presume that Hofer is just as suspect to the majority of voters as is Alexander Van der Bellen [the Green candidate]. But Hofer is for change, for the breaking open of fossilized structures. So he will win.
Of course, the outcry in the international media will be great. The news that a populist, right-extremist — someone even called a neo-Nazi — was elected by a large majority of Austrians as their new president, will be worth a headline in every medium in the world. But we will have to get through that.
It will mean two things for Austria. First, Norbert Hofer will not act the great radical. Just the opposite. He will do all he can to assure his re-election in six years as a thoughtful, down-to-earth president. Second, there is the prospect of a comparatively serious political earthquake with an as yet unforeseeable conclusion. At the writing of this commentary, it was not yet clear who will succeed Werner Faymann as chancellor and head of the SPÖ [Socialist Democrats]. At the moment, the Social Democrats are in a sad and disoriented condition. With a new leader like Christian Kern, however, the SPÖ would have one last chance to re-invent itself. Otherwise, its fate seems sealed and the SPÖ would be banned to the hard seats of the opposition benches at the next opportunity.
What appeared to be a pipe dream just a little while ago could now become reality. With the modern and entrepreneurial Austrian Railroad head Kern at the head of the SPÖ, the ÖVP [Austrian People’s Party] would be under pressure. If it does not want to look really old, it will have to replace its vice chancellor, Reinhold Mitterlehner, with the politically talented Sebastian Kurz. Kern and Kurz could then — relatively unhindered — present a reform agenda for Austria.
Such a reform agenda should contain dramatic cutbacks in state structures, a halt to the flood of new laws and regulations, definitive reductions of the tax and fee burden, reform of social programs including the pension system and, last but not least, serious investment in and comprehensive re-structuring of the educational system.
The time is right to overcome the various interest groups inside and outside the two parties with a literally historic reform agenda. Christian Kern and Sebastian Kurz would then be in a position to create a spirit of optimism in Austria. By the next national election in 2018, they could turn things around and make the FPÖ, in turn, look old and tired. At any rate, domestic politics junkies can look forward to exciting times in Austria.
Martin Engelberg is a psychoanalyst, associate and managing director of the Vienna Consulting Group, lecturer at the Economic University of Vienna and editor of the Jewish magazine, NU.