Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Austrian election commentary from Daily Telegraph

Far-Right's showing in Austria's election is worrying
[Not my headline-EL]
By Edward Lucas
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 30/09/2008

From the outside, it looks at best distasteful; at worst, downright sinister. Three Austrians out of 10 voted for far-Right parties in Sunday's parliamentary election.

Nobody with a sense of history can fail to hear echoes of jackboots on pavements, and catch the whiff of burning synagogues.

Jörg Haider, leader of the populist Alliance for Austria's Future, has described the SS as patriots and downplays the Holocaust. Heinz-Christian Strache, the thuggish leader of the Freedom Party [party affiliations transposed in the original piece by editing error, sorry EL] has associated with neo-Nazis in the past, and ran an unprecedentedly virulent campaign against immigrants and foreigners.

From inside Austria, it looks worrying, too, but for different reasons. Sunday's vote does not mean that Austria is ripe for fascism, but that the old model of politics created after the war in much of Europe is broken, with nothing ready to take its place.

For decades, Austria was run by a political cartel of the "Reds" (Social Democrats) and "Blacks" (the Christian Democrats, known as the People's Party). They alternated in power, dividing up jobs in public service and business between them.

The "Parteibuch" (membership card) was crucial for everything from places in the best kindergarten in Vienna (run for Social Democrats at the Schönbrunn Palace) to opening a newsagent's shop.

The early success of Haider's party in the 1980s was a reaction against that. Voters flocked to the Greens for similar reasons. The result, along with EU membership in 1994, was to weaken the old "Proporz" system of dividing the spoils. Austria is now far more open and competitive.

But though many of the bad old ways are gone, the new conditions are irritating, too. You might not think it, in a country led by people with such un-German names as Vranitzky, Busek and Kreisky, but Austria was for decades barely exposed to immigration.

The Iron Curtain sheltered Austria's labour market from the cheap workers in neighbouring countries. Now the country's dynamic economy is sucking in people from far and wide, and many Austrians don't like it. Strache's demand that immigrants speak proper German struck a chord.

Yet Austrians' ability to express their worries about economic dislocation and the social stress caused by immigration via the political mainstream is constrained. The simple reason: the two main parties are in government together.

Imagine that Britain was governed by a Tory-Labour coalition: nothing would be more likely to give momentum to politicians whose unpleasantness would otherwise keep them on the margins.

It is the same story in Germany, where the big parties of Right and Left are in a "Grand Coalition". This is having a similar, all-too predictable result: driving protest voters to the margins of politics.

In Bavaria, the Christian Social Union (CSU), once the unchallenged ruler of Germany's most successful region, dropped below 50 per cent in elections on Sunday: the beneficiaries were the minor parties - Greens, Liberals and local populists.

That is bad news for Angela Merkel, who relies on the CSU for support in her national government. But it is even worse for her other coalition partner, the Social Democrats (SPD). It is close to imploding, divided about whether to support unpopular economic reforms or whether to move Left to fend off a challenge from a new competitor.

Known simply as Die Linke (The Left), this is a ragbag mixture of East German ex-communists and West German ultra-leftists.

This is not just "old Europe's" problem. In Lithuania's impending election, populist parties are polling strongly, despite their scandalous links to the Kremlin and Russian organised crime.

Voters are exasperated by the sleaze and incompetence of the ruling coalition of moderate Leftists and conservatives; politicians in the Kremlin are licking their lips at the prospect of a Nato and EU member coming up for grabs.

The clear lesson for Europe's mainstream politicians is to compete, not to collaborate. Voters like a choice between sensible parties. When they don't get it, they will vote for silly ones.

But there are dilemmas, too. Should a mainstream party consider a fringe one as a coalition partner? That question is torturing the SPD. It sees Die Linke as dangerous, even revolting - but it also sees it as a partner in power at regional or even national level.

In Austria, the People's Party may dump the Social Democrats and go into government with either or both of the far-Right parties.

The hope behind such deals is that power sanitises radical forces. The hard choices of office may tame them, or expose divisions. This has happened in Austria whenever Haider's party has held power. The danger is that it legitimises extremism: does one really want Stalinists, or those who have a soft spot for Hitler, getting a sniff of real power?

What is really worrying is not that some bull-necked populist gets a turn at running Austria's transport ministry. It is that Europe's political system is so weak, after years of unparalleled prosperity.

What will happen when the financial tsunami that has broken over Wall Street and the City hits continental Europe's wobbly banks, taking jobs and perhaps even savings with it? Nobody is ready for that - least of all the Continent's discredited and complacent political leaders.

1 comment:

G K said...

Thanks for your comment at Russian video article, Mr. Lucas.

I have to do more explanation of what I wanted to say regarding this:

"Heinz-Christian Strache, the thuggish leader of the Freedom Party [party affiliations transposed in the original piece by editing error, sorry EL] has associated with neo-Nazis in the past, and ran an unprecedentedly virulent campaign against immigrants and foreigners."

My instinctive reaction was to question whether these claims are true. I still think that "has associated with neo-Nazis" is too broad, considering what has been made public regarding this topic:

- "food parcel" episode or Strache's admission of being part of a group, which included German neo-Nazi Wikingjugend members, trying to smuggle "food parcels" into East Germany in 1989;
- by now famous "paintball pictures" - again some 20 years old pictures with pepole, some of whom subsequently went on to become neo-Nazi

Yet, whether or not evidence supports assessment of his past neo-Nazi associations, it is not the most problematic. It's that:

1) that assessment can not possibly be defining characteristic of either Strache as politician or FPÖ as a party;
2) it boxes in those who would support some of FPÖ political stances

After the coverage British press gave them I don't feel free -- or, for the lack of better word, safe -- to discuss publicly what is it I like and don't like about FPÖs policies. Being seen publicly as Nazi sympathiser or racist has consequences. That leaves privacy and safety of ballot booth (I'm not Austrian, but I can and likely will vote in EU parliament elections here in Vienna)

In addition to FPÖ's program, I have now watched assortment youtube videos from Strache's election rallies and I still think their offer on immigration is well balanced rather than "unprecedentedly virulent". At most it is virulent towards alien criminals and those -- so he says -- who try to take advantage of asylum rules rather than try regular immigration route. At the same time, he has enough good to say about those immigrants whom FPÖ considers well integrated. There is little data, the existing data is speculative, but it shows FPÖ may have captured 19-23% vote among voters with immigrant backgrounds. That needs to be factored in somewhere, I think.

So my point is: unless those are defining characteristics, introduction of party incorporating "neo-Nazi", "thuggish" and "virulent" is not helpful at all.