Election fever has managed not to infect me in the Cottageviertel. For the most part I seem able to bumble through Vienna in a continuing state of oblivion about the forthcoming Nationalratwahl 2019 (in the UK the equivalent would be a “General Election”). However, that is more to do with the fact that I walk briskly, eyes fixed on the pavement in front of me and am not spending my time on the buses ensconced in political analysis through the medium of print, or online journalism. The uninitiated or newcomers to this little blog (welcome, by the way!) are unlikely to know that Austria has had a turbulent year politically, albeit it one that has outlined the merits of a codified constitution.
Placed in a European perspective, the impending elections have probably barely registered, as we are now into a fourth year of the United Kingdom and its Brexit doing all it can to hog the political headlines, with scant consideration for the frequent Spanish elections. For those who have missed it, Austria’s President, Alexander van der Bellen, steered Austria serenely through the political challenges it faced following that turbulent passage in late May during which the coalition government collapsed, the Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, lost a vote of no confidence and after a short two day interregnum, Brigitte Bierlein became Austria’s first female Chancellor.
The next issue was to hold elections. A “snap” election was to be held, albeit Austrian style. First announced in May, the election is finally being held now at the end of September, meaning a summer of posturing and mud slinging and near mandatory flesh pressing draws to an end. Many Austrian friends are glad that its dominance in television listings is soon to come to an end, although tomorrow, 29 September 2019, will see a regurgitation of how it was won and lost. Some friends have expressed that they just to get it over and done with, and have known which way they will vote for a long time. I can gauge who votes which way, but there is also some dissent among them. Some life-long SPÖ voters seem unimpressed with Pamela Rendi-Wagner, whose posters reflect the fact that unlike Kurz and Hofer, she has completed courses of undergraduate and postgraduate studies.
With the not-so-snap elections, Austria’s politics this Summer have been ably negotiated by the technocratic government and some essential legislation duly passed, in stark contrast to the apparent legislative paralysis that the UK has gone through, when parliament was sitting and not being prorogued and similar stunts to wait the precious time afforded it by way of an extension. However, before I digress to mention the manbaby in No. 10 Downing Street, it is far more important that I do a rundown of what is happening here as Austria goes to the polls.
For the duration of the approaching three decades I have lived in Vienna, my memories of the variably frequent elections have been strongly linked to election posters. One of the most sobering thoughts has been that the ÖVP has been in government for the entire time since re-entering government in 1986. Initially, speaking not so much German, they were my opening to the world of Austrian politics. I could put a face or a slogan to a party. I didn’t religiously watch ORF coverage and follow the ins and outs. But I always remembered the triangular stands going out on the streets, which were the first difference in electioneering that I remember. That and a lack of rosettes. From the UK, I remember people having posters in windows, on grass verges etc. usually in a party colour with the candidate’s name. There were party political broadcasts that went out in the run up to the elections, but nothing like the intensity of the campaigns that draw on every facet of the media, whether print, digital, social or downright antisocial.
My nephew, happily in full-time employment again and living independently, has remarked that he receives lots of targeted adverts on social media, from all the main parties. I find the 10a and 35a buses to be graveyards of election propaganda/bumpf – along with discarded copies of the free papers that seem to be destined for disposal on the floor. I’ve also been trying to avoid the various Flohmärkte, Strassenfeste, Kirtage and the like, which have lent themselves to flesh-pressing activities for Austria’s heavyweights in the political arena. It still strikes me that print is still a very valuable medium for politicians, and billboards have been awash with pictures of candidates, slogans, and occasionally even policies. And of course, it offers the greatest opportunity for modification by the disgruntled.
Even in this day and age, the triangular stands remain a constant presence on streets with frequent footfall – although my corner of Döbling seems mercifully to be relatively free from them. Clearly there must be too many foreigners and diplomats around by Curmudgeon Towers, and the absence of shops on our street also means an insignificant level of footfall to warrant blocking the pavements. Of course they are also the lowest hanging fruits, and therefore the easiest to deface. The previous government (ÖVP/FPÖ) seem to benefit from the highest levels of defacement, which made me wonder whether this was down to their performance in government, the faces that adorn the boards, or whether defacement is the reserve of the “leftie”. I’ve enjoyed sharing a few of the defaced boards through my Twitter account recently – and was in near ecstasy to find a defaced stand for the Grünen this afternoon, since this disproved my theory that only right wing parties’ posters get defaced. But, there is far less defacing of SPÖ, Neos and Grünen posters, than posters by ÖVP/FPÖ.
After the video from Ibiza featuring a grubby-toenailed fake Russian oligarch caused seismic ripples in Austria prior to the European elections at the end of May, it was no surprise that the runners and riders would be wanting to prove that they had no skeletons in the closet, and had cleaned up their act, and possibly in homage to the former profession of disgraced sonny-boy-cum-Vice-chancellor (HC was a dental technician in a past life) many have chosen particularly pearly white sets of teeth to display. Indeed, it is the dentistry of the six main party heads (Kurz, Rendi-Wagner, Hofer, Meinl-Reisinger, Kogler, Pilz) that have struck me, due to their prominent positioning on billboards across the capital.
Sebastian Kurz, is still only 33 and was removed as Kanzler in May, and has been dogged by scrutiny from the media of his ÖVP. My Stammtisch friends have shaken their heads and described him as a “Blender”, which translates as “fake” or “phoney”. My own opinion is that he seems to be a marionette, but who is pulling his strings is not quite clear to me. He is clearly well-trained, has a team of advisors who believe in the Kurz brand – the ÖVP is now the “Liste Kurz” – has been recoloured, abandoning black for turquoise. Somehow, he seems to be heading for another term as Kanzler (and using slogans like “Das ist mein Kanzler” or “Österreich braucht seinen Kanzler”, a daring move perhaps in an era where German is so gendered). And since prayers were offered for him (hence the Kurz = Jesus defacement) at some biblebashing jamboree in the Stadthalle, I should perhaps gratuitously shoe-horn a Pythonism here: “He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”
And naughty he has been, by reusing a slogan “Einer, der unsere Sprache spricht” (someone who speaks our language), which was previously used twice by the FPÖ. Running over electoral budget at the last election has been another area of contention, and there have been stories of serial EUR 49,000 a month donations from the über-rich circles of blue-rinse widows or industrialists, thereby avoided needing the Court of Audit (Rechnungshof) to get involved. Other highlights of momentary lapses/madness have been changing his backstory from being from Meidling (Vienna’s 12th district) to the Waldviertel. And otherwise, there has been an issue of hard drives being destroyed in the aftermath of Ibizagate.
The FPÖ have lost their figurehead, HC Strache, who is in permanent disgrace, despite apparently still having considerable social media clout, and also getting his wife, Philippa, to stand to make sure that the foaming loons that presume the world (or at least Austria) is out to get the FPÖ can still put the name Strache for their preferred candidate. However, the brand is tarnished, and HC’s expenses are becoming an item of distinct ridicule, as well as those of other FPÖ ministries. Otherwise, erstwhile hang-glider and subsequent walking stick brandisher, Norbert Hofer, adorns the posters and flashes his pearly whites. I can’t pretend to have any interest in their policies, as they’re a nasty bunch of right wingers, with dubious moral compasses, but the one positive thing about their deep pockets and poster budget is the fact that their posters seem to be so widely defaced in such a wide range of ways (see above) within hours of being put up.
The SPÖ, led by Pamela Rendi-Wagner, is playing the humanity card, although some friends have questioned her ability to speak to the life-long membership, as well as not really representing the social democrat side of things. She’s too polished and bourgeois for many, and seems to struggle when put up head-to-head with the other party heads. Her involvement in the no confidence motion against Kurz has clearly rankled with him. It’s going to be interesting whether the SPÖ comes in 2nd or 3rd. She missed out on the chance to become Austria’s first Kanzlerin, with the appointment of Brigitte Bierlein as the caretaker Kanzlerin in May 2019. She has past ministerial expertise, having been health minister following the death of Sabine Oberhauser.
The Neos (a contraction/portemanteau of Das neue Österreich) is headed by Beate Meinl-Reisinger, who was previously affiliated to the ÖVP. Their posters try to promote them as the “decent alternative”, as well as caring for policies that other parties don’t seem so concerned by (“Macht sonder keiner“).
They are a very pro-European party, with Meinl-Reisinger, in a past life having been an Assistant to Othmar Karas (ÖVP), one of the fourteen Vice Presidents of the European Parliament. The pun “Kurz nachdenken. Pink wählen” is a clever one, since puns seem to be few and far between in the marathon election campaign, notably dour and humourless.
The Grünen are hoping to get back into parliament, as they fell below the necessary 4% at the last elections, due in part to the fact that Peter Pilz, a former Grünen MP broke off from them, and split the vote. Werner Kogler’s party is unsurprisingly championing the environment, sustainability and decency. The first posters asked voters who the environment/decency would vote for, with pictures from Ibizagate and of a polar bear on them.
Liste Pilz is now known as Jetzt (now). He’s probably closest to doing the Chukka Umuna, and changing party on a whim, and his reputation has been tarnished by the fall-out of the last election in 2017 in relation to sexual harrassment. Another point of criticism has been due to his living in a Gemeindebau for the entire time during his very long parliamentary career (a lucratively remunerated one at that).
So who will be smiling, and who not? In recent weeks the FPÖ have hardened their approach of resuming their coalition, dismissing the alternative of ÖVP “falling over to the left”, with Herbert Kickl, the FPÖ’s rottweiler, campaigning on the usual anti-immigration links. To draw a parallel, he’s like the dangerous Dominic Cummings style person of Austrian politics, a sociopath foil for someone more charismatic, like Hofer. I dread the sight of his smile, should we be treated to it.
On that note, I will sign off, thanking those of you still reading for following this post through to the end, and hope that the election goes smoothly, without mishap and that for those of you not planning to follow ORF’s coverage wall-to-wall, that you have a pleasant Sunday.
In case you are wondering which way you ought to have voted (had you been eligible), then you might also like the wahlkabine.at website.