One of many New Year’s traditions Austrians enjoy is a new episode of the cheesy romantic ‘dramedy’ Traumschiff on New Year’s Day. So, when political leaders decide to announce they reached a coalition deal right after the show, the symbolism can hardly be missed.
This year, a new, dashing captain boarded the ocean liner headed for Columbia. Other than solving mysteries like finding a stowaway and helping enamored couples get together, the captain also always holds a feel-good final speech.
“I have learned on this journey,” young captain Parger proclaimed, “that there is never only one way.” As it turns out, this seaman’s yarn can just as well be applied to current politics.
Get on Board for the Change
Right on time for the ZiB 2, the ORF’s main news show on January 1, Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and Werner Kogler (Greens) faced the press at 21:50. They had reached a coalition deal which contained, in the words of ÖVP chairman and prospective old/new chancellor Kurz, “the best of both worlds.”
Kogler, who as Green party chief had overseen his party’s return to parliament – the “biggest resurrection-comeback since Lazarus,” in his own words – stressed that this agreement was the “start of a process of change” (in German, somehow more poetically with a public transport metaphor, the “Einstieg zum Umstieg” – getting on board for a change of direction).
The 300 pages of the Turquoise-Green government program, as well as a short version and the detailed ministers’ list were published on January 2. The agreement faced one more hurdle: While ÖVP chief Sebastian Kurz has the full authority to agree to the deal for his party, the Greens’ Werner Kogler needed to put the agreement to a vote in his party’s 276-strong federal committee. After a spirited debate at the meeting on January 3-4 in Salzburg, 93.18 percent of the delegates voted in favor of joining the coalition government.
New Kings at Epiphany?
The new Turquoise-Green government was sworn in by Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen on Tuesday, January 7 – not without some hilarious glitch courtesy of Austria’s public broadcaster ORF, which subtitled the ceremony with texts of the telenovela “Alisa – follow your heart.” The government was sworn in one day after Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings – another celebration Austrians hold dear, when carol singers visit them – and 100 days after the parliamentary elections on September 29.
The ÖVP-Green government assuming office is a first for Austria and. Observers see the tie-up between Austria’s conservative Christian Democrats with a populist streak, the ÖVP, and the environmentally minded, humanist and idealistic, but some may also say otherworldly, Greens as an experiment that’s worth following.
Sebastian Kurz in particular is seen as somewhat of a weathervane for conservative parties across the continent; over his career, Kurz has changed political course repeatedly and walked out on two consecutive governments, only to emerge stronger at the next elections every time.
In Europe, the rise of populist forces at the same time as the climate movement gathers strength may portend more such hitherto unlikely tie-ups. If the experiment succeeds, many see it as a potential role model for other EU countries like Germany, where the Greens are also ascendant and climate change is a top concern for many voters.
Deal Not a Foregone Conclusion
However, a deal could not be taken for granted during the negotiations and it might not all be smooth sailing from now on either. At the elections on September 29, Kurz’s ÖVP garnered 37% of the vote, the Greens got almost 14%. The balance of power is thus uneven.
Many Green voters and indeed party members have long regarded the Conservatives as the “Gottseibeiuns” (the devil, requiring a sign of the cross in self-defense) and see Kurz as supercilious, power-hungry populist. On the other side, many ÖVP voters and members see the Greens as escapist, lefty “Gutmenschen” (something like “bleeding-heart liberal”) with whom governing may be in for an ordeal.
Their programs and the motivation of their voters also differ significantly. The Conservatives put Kurz at the center of the ÖVP campaign, together with a strong economy, lower taxes, no new debts, the fight against illegal immigration and Austrian identity. The Greens instead underlined that they are needed for the fight to manage climate change, protect the environment, defend social and human rights, and not least, to bring transparency – and control from the opposition benches – back to parliament.
How the new government’s program and style will incorporate all these differing goals remains to be seen. In 2002, a similar tie-up between ÖVP and Greens broke apart during coalition negotiations over the details of the deal. Another center-right government followed.
Necessity Makes Marriage
However, no matter their differences, outside forces pushed them together. With both the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) losing votes and support – and the FPÖ rocked by scandals – another coalition with either seemed like a losing proposition to Kurz. The Greens, for their part, would have a hard time explaining why, despite the climate urgency, they chose to remain on the sidelines.
This is why the Greens’ federal committee voted in favor of the deal Kurz and Kogler negotiated. The Empire is long gone, but Austria’s next, so to speak, k.u.k. government is now reigning again.
This article was updated on January 9, 2020, to reflect new developments.