Austria’s new old Grand Coalition government, led by social democratic Chancellor Werner Faymann and conservative Vice-Chancellor Michael Spindelegger, has been sworn in earlier on Monday. The ceremony was accompanied by protests on the streets and major dissatisfaction among the people. Public universities all over Austria raised black flags. For once, this is not due to Austrians’ affinity to moan. Commentators, both foreign and domestic, share the view that this coalition agreement is among least ambitious the country has seen since 1945. Contrary to all promises, it lacks controversial but long overdue reforms and supports the stalemate.
The general elections on September 29th had the Social Democrats (SPÖ) finishing first and the christian-democratic People’s Party (ÖVP) second, despite major losses by both. What used to be a Grand Coalition ended up with a narrow majority that would secure what they intended to do even long before the election campaign: keeping everything as it is. Nevertheless it took them eleven weeks of negotiations to come to that agreement.
In looking for possible reasons for the bad quality of that result, one could argue that it’s the particular politicians, that lack ambition and most of all firm conviction. But that just scratches the surface. The real cause for this undesirable development are not only the acting politicians, but the nature of the parties that produce that kind of politicians.
Parties like SPÖ and ÖVP are small microcosms guided by rituals and political habits that have existed for over sixty years. They still pick their leading personnel behind closed doors and reward those who behave, who sing the party’s songs, act according to the rituals, agree with the party’s common sense and punshing those who dare to object or criticize.
Both Mr. Faymann and Mr. Spindelegger grew up in such political enviroments. For them, the primary aim remains to please officials of their own party. Most importantly, they have to appoint representatives of the major party-affiliated organisations proportionally to the offices.
To that end, the new government founded a Ministry for Families and Youth, that has practually no use, since major family affairs are about subsidies and thus subjected to the Finance Ministry and youth affairs a matter of the federal states. And as if that wasn’t enough, in order to do so, they even had to get rid of the Ministry for Science and Research. In 2013!
The government is not even reluctant to subject major future oriented issues to their own party needs. And they have no incentive to change this behaviour. They are happy with the status quo, because, for one, parties in Austria enjoy public funding like in no other European country. For another, in the recent elections they were pretty much reduced to their core electorates. They are unlikely to lose much more voters. Therefore in their election campaigns, they focus on the mobilisation of their own electorate rather than trying to convince new voters. By the way, the demographic group that makes for the biggest share of the electorate of the two parties, are statistically summarized as “people over 60″ with needs that, needless to say, are not necessarily so much concerned about the country’s future.
The parties are unlikely to change, unless they are forced to. Such change could only come from inside the parties. What would be required is a grassroots movement, that forces the leadership to open up their parties, providing real means of participation and public forums for politcal debate and democratize the selection of election candidates. That would fundamentally change the requirements on the political personnel, allowing real debate with real dissent. And it could attract talented young people again to join politics and create a whole variety of people among politicians – a variety that a vivid democracy so heavily relies on. It would force the parties to give up their introversive focus, broaden their perspectives and eventually lead to policy that meets the needs of the society and the challenges of the nation.
Generally, Austria is in good shape. The economy is doing well. Unemployment is comparably low and sustainable growth in sight. But all that doesn’t change the fact that there are major reforms that has been overdue for over twenty years, especially in education, in research and in the judicial system. Austria cannot afford to the rest on the achievements of former governments and put its healthy state in jeopardy. But that is exactly what this coaltion agreement does.
It’s the nature of the parties, their insularity and their culture of discussion, that is the real decease. The spinelessness and small-mindedness that are set to govern this country for five more years are just its painful symptoms.