The rest of 2018 promises to be very busy in Austria. Between the beginning of Sebastian Kurz’s first term in office as Europe’s youngest head of state in a coalition government of the centre-right ÖVP with the far-right FPÖ, and the 80th anniversary of the Anschluss of Austria by Germany in 1938, the Austrians face many challenges, both new and old. Interestingly, the Austrian press has begun using a term for many of the new government’s intended policies, since the government programme is vague on many actual measures, that is as elastic as it is relevant: “Retropolitik”.
A quick Google search shows it is being used to address more or less everything and anything ranging from the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition’s campaign promise to uphold current Austrian laws allowing smoking in restaurants, against the EU line, women’s rights and even a plan to introduce longer working hours. Looking at these things case by case, there definitely are clearly retro elements in each.
Austria’s current smoking laws allow for separate smoking sections in establishments of a certain size. Smaller bars and restaurants can choose whether to allow smoking or not. This compromise is against current EU norms, but the FPÖ made it a central issue of their campaign to promise Austrians this exception. As it turns out, the Austrian Medical Association quickly called for signatures to be gathered in support of a no-smoking referendum, in line with another central ÖVP-FPÖ campaign promise, to bring more direct democracy to Austria.
The now serving centre-right coalition was caught off guard by this speedy and well-organised response and suddenly find themselves backpedalling on their Athenian intentions, looking to postpone any referenda for a period yet to be determined. As much as smoking may be a question of self-determination and personal liberties, it is clearly a health hazard and Austria, as a member of the EU, has to acknowledge that. To put this personal liberty issue and EU compliance up for a plebiscite is fine, but the Kurz-Strache Cabinet seems to have problems remembering that now. They are also very fuzzy about a planned fee based on the size of the smoking area to be levied on those hospitality businesses that choose to continue to permit smoking under the new-old law.
On the subject of new-old fees: another sensitive issue is a new mandatory payment for afternoon daycare for working mothers, which is broadly considered a hidden tax on these services. This has been a contentious policy over the years, but it was the ÖVP which abolished it in 2009, a decision the party praised as recently as 2014 for saving every Austrian family EUR1,000 a year. So both elasticity and relevance play a role here too. The ÖVP-FPÖ’s rationale seems to be: this topic has been addressed many times in the past, now it is just a question of changing the official tack and tag at the right moment, just re-label and re-launch. What seems to be missing here is a fast, well-concerted response on the part of women’s rights organisations, but fast or not, it may yet come, especially if the government continues to waffle on allowing for more pure democracy.
Although not announced at the same time, the fact that the government is considering introducing 12-hour working days hasn’t really helped calm the situation. Critics claim that a look at Austria’s demographics shows women and the aging Austrian population in general will face serious disadvantages on the job market expecting that kind of output.
These are the policy and implementation issues the Austrian media willingly addresses as “Retropolitik” when analysing the Cabinets that have come and gone in its only 63-year-old democracy. Yet there are other, more disturbing retro tendencies in which the negative aspects of Austria’s pre-democratic past have left and are again leaving some pretty jagged marks. Ironically, these aspects are rarely seen in an historical context in Austria.
Rayouf Alhumedi, a 16-year-old student at the Vienna International School, wrote the Unicode Consortium, suggesting a headscarf emoji. This earned her a place on the Time Magazine list of the 30 most influential teenagers in the world. It also earned her an outraged reaction from Jon Gudenus, the FPÖ faction leader in the Parliament, who claimed Time’s honorary mention was “madness”, after having suggested she leave the country if she didn’t like the fact there was no headscarf emoji online. Days later, Gudenus suggested that “large-scale dwellings” be built on the outskirts of Vienna for asylum seekers and refugees. The new Minister of the Interior, Herbert Kickl (FPÖ), was quick to back up his party comrade weeks later with a choice phrase, “in future, we should concentrate refugees in large-scale dwellings”. Kickl is also exploring the possibility of re-introducing mounted police units in Vienna for the first time since 1938.
One last development that is currently unfolding and was cause for the liberal NEOS party to move for a vote of no confidence against Kickl in the Parliament this week was the recent raid of the BVT, the Austrian Anti-Terror Intelligence service. In an action thriller-type raid, three elite police units stormed the BVT building while others entered the homes of a number of BVT employees, allegedly to secure illegally obtained North Korean Passport blanks. After the raids, questions are being raised concerning the whereabouts of up to 17 DVDs of BVT data on the extreme right scene in Austria – a thorn in the side of the FPÖ – as well as data on other intelligence operations.
There is a weird trickle down effect here if one looks at the whole in pieces. From the freedom to smoke for a fee and the freedom to work longer to be able to pay a mandatory fee for daycare, Austria’s much-vaunted new government seems more intent on making an impression with a slippery mix of new-old policies rather than impressing its voters with something more substantial. Examples: for the first time in 50 years, the government has an official spokesperson, each FPÖ-led ministry has a new general secretary and a new speaker, and the FPÖ has launched a historical commission to investigate its history and possible ties to the far-right scene. The new FPÖ minister of defence called in a committee of experts to assess Austria’s Eurofighter aircraft operational costs and alternatives and the BVT raid is almost certain to be investigated by a parliamentary probe.
All of these things are somehow meant to signal greater modernity and efficiency, but the price seems to be control at all levels, whether fiscal, with regard to pure democracy, or the administration and flow of intelligence information within the government. The other aspect of all this “controlled modernisation” is that the FPÖ seems to believe in sheer numbers when it comes to holding government appointments, creating new posts and committees, launching probes, etc. What is worrying is that no one seems concerned about how closely these goings on, although in a more up-to-date guise, are beginning to resemble all the abbreviations, bodies and organisations that shot out of the ground some 80 years ago. In the meantime, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has been busier reining in the FPÖ and assuaging European fears concerning the exact course he plans to steer rather than making policy. The current formula could be: “let the FPÖ tap into the voters fears and then let’s see what kind of policy we can fashion, without raising eyebrows”. This could become more challenging for both government parties domestically if the current sharp decline in migration to Austria continues.
Either way, the Kurz-Strache Cabinet finds itself in a dilemma, is it better to play to Austrian voters afraid of yet another wave of foreigners within the unpredictable ebb and flow of migration, or to actually move to create a truly modern, prosperous democracy? The answer to that lies in the people governing the country. At 31, Kurz, despite his experience as Austria’s Foreign Minister, still has to prove he can lead the country without his coalition becoming a Faustian deal with the far right. The same type of deal led to the defeat of the first ÖVP-led coalition with the FPÖ 12 years ago, after only one term. Vienna’s socialist Mayor, Michael Häupl, who is due to retire after 25 years in office, has always questioned the FPÖ’s ability to govern, just in terms of high-level experience. A look at Kickl’s rhetoric and antics alone, which could be taken right out of “ A child’s Machiavelli: A Primer on Power”, such as being rude to the press on principle, being photographed on a police horse in Munich and ordering a large-scale raid by elite units to secure passport blanks would tend to support Häupl’s fears. It is not clear how many of his compatriots share his fears.
By Pedro Manuel López, Translator
Pedro M López
Boundless Ocean of Politics has received this article from Mr Pedro Manuel López, the New York-based Editor, Translator, Interpreter and Author.
Mr López took part in a panel discussion on 2017 Austrian Election on OKTO TV on December 7, 2017 (Watch: https://www.okto.tv/de/oktothek/episode/19980) and again on the Performance of the Austrian government on March 29, 2018 (Watch: https://www.okto.tv/de/oktothek/episode/20524).
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