Gwilym Williams 

Reports from his home in Austria on a current right-wing putsch

Government by Newspaper  

Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and...to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind - George Orwell

A snap Austrian general election held on Sunday 28th September 2008 was provoked by Austria's popular tabloid the Kronen Zeitung - a anti-EU propaganda sheet and by far the biggest selling daily in Austria; a newspaper which thinks that the Habsburgs are still in power. The Kronen Zeitung managed with one clever stroke to make Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer (Socialist Party) obsolete; disappeared him from the political scene and got their own man, the editor's friend, Transport Minister Werner Faymann (Socialist Party), for all intents and purposes, running the country and running down the EU. The newspaper achieved its aims by using the said Feymann, to cajole the naive Gusenbauer into signing his name to a bit of anti-EU propganda on the Readers' Letters page; a page that is often heavily loaded with anti-EU tittle-tattle.

On the other side of the so-called grand coalition of left and centre the Vice Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer (Austrian Peoples Party) stuck firmly to his pro-EU line. A breakdown of the coalition was inevitable. In yesterday's elections the Austrian public protested strongly against this piece of chicanery in the only possible way and voted for the two right-wing parties, the parties of Jörg Haider and his young copy H-C Strache. The popularity of both of the incumbent grand coalition parties fell to an all time low in percentage votes. And this in an election where 16-year olds have the vote for the first time. The gainers, the two right-wing parties are basically one far-right party which split in two due to internal domestic squabbles. They exist together in what is called in Austria a 'political club'. Together they got 30% of the vote - in other words they are now equal in strength to the Socialist Party. The centre Peoples Party vote collapsed and they are now effectively in third place. But that may not be bad for them. There is something of a tradition in Austria that the third placed party can get the Chancellor post. Wolfgang Schussel managed this piece of wizardry. So it cannot be ruled out in this election. The Green Party got 10% of the vote and their leader Alexander Van der Bellen reckoned this was the maximum that a Green Party could be expected to achieve in Austria.

The 'political club' is one of several of the mutual back-scratching enterprises which enables politicians such as Haider's mouthpiece from Vorarlberg, transport minister Gorbach, to obtain the rank of Vice Chancellor in a previous coalition despite the fact that he was a member of a political party which hadn't even gained one vote. Did not exist in fact. Gorbach was elected as a member of Haider's old party, the one taken over by Strache, and craftily switched sides to Haider's new party following an ultra-right-wing party putsch. Because Gorbach and other Haider ministers were in the 'club', the powerless Austrian President, Heinz Fischer, had little alternative but to agree to this baffling piece of political manouvering. Such is the nature of Austrian politics.

Asked for his reaction to the election result, the President said that he was going to wait until the postal votes had been counted. This will give him a bit of breathing space. But not much. He mustn't move on this until October 6th. After that date he must consider coalition proposals from the various parties. This will be done behind closed doors at the President's office in the old Habsburg Palace. History indicates that it will take between 60 and 120 days before a decision is made as to which coalition has actually won the election and will get to form the next government. The main options now seem to be

1) Molterer resigns and is replaced by Pröll, the present agriculture and environment minister and the grand coalition is re-formed, albeit with a reduced majority. It is hard to see how this can be workable, a pro/anti EU coalition - the last such coalition lasted only 18 months.
2) Molterer stays on and makes a coalition with Haider and Strache. This would place Austrian politics in a centre/right/right position. It is also hard to see how this can be workable for the Haider and Strache parties have until now shown no desire to work together. Will they kiss and make up is the question.
3) Faymann leads a minority government. This would be difficult, if not impossible with only 29% of the popular vote. In addition to the three main options at least four other less likely coalition options are possible. Meanwhile the invisible Alfred Gusenbauer will continue to lead the country in theory at least. The Kronen Zeitung front page spin today is that Faymann, with -6% compared to Gusenbauer at the 2006 election, has won the election. This smiley politician adorns the front page under a misleading headline designed to give the impression that he has won a landslide victory. We live in interesting, if worrying, times.

STOP PRESS: Wilhelm Molterer has resigned. Josef Pröll has taken over as the leader of the Austrian Peoples Party. Statisticians claim that 40% of Austria's newly enfranchised youth (16 - 18 years) voted for Haider or Strache.

STOP PRESS: Jörg Haider is dead. The 58-year old politician was killed in a road traffic accident in Carinthia, Austria at 1.15am Saturday 11th October. It appears that Haider was driving alone in his official car on his way home from a society photo opportunityat an upmarket night club in Velden. He was overtaking another vehicle when he lost control of his Volkswagen Phaeton which struck a road sign, a fire hydrant and a concrete post before overturning several times. He suffered fatal head and chest injuries. The car's 'black-box' shows that the 2-ton VW Phaeton was being driven at more than twice the legal speed limit f 70 kph. There were reports of fog in the immediate area at the time. Recently Haider had been making overtures in the direction of H C Strache and there was press talk of reunification of the two far-right parties. Between them they won 30% of the popular vote in last September's general election. It may now come to pass that the Haider party, the BZÖ, will fizzle out like damp squib for it was always a populist party based on the charisma of a single personality. Pollsters reckon that 50% of voters aged between 16 - 30 voted for either Haider or Strache the two far-right candidates in the recent election. Transport Minister Werner Faymann currently leading the Socialist Party's bid for power predicts that coalition building will take until December. [13/10/08]

Gwilym Williams (Vienna) © 2008