It’s been a busy few weeks for Austria. The release of the Ibiza video on May 18 unleashed a domestic firestorm, leading directly to the resignation of then-Vice-Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache (FPÖ) on May 19 and then of remaining FPÖ ministers on May 20, effectively ending the center-right coalition. An interim government cobbled together by then-Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) assumed office on May 22 but left it again four days later, when Parliament passed a motion of no confidence.
Under these circumstances, the Constitution gives Federal President Alexander Van der Bellen the right and duty to appoint an interim chancellor. In theory, the president can appoint any Austrian citizen who is over 18 years old and has never been convicted of a serious crime. In reality, of course, MPs and the public were expecting a safe choice that would be acceptable to all parties; someone with the technical skills to govern the country until elections are held in September 2019.
A Government of Firsts
On May 30, Brigitte Bierlein, 69, was announced as Austria’s next chancellor. The president’s choice, most everyone agrees, was surprising – and wise. Bierlein was the first woman to head Austria’s Constitutional Court (as of 2018) and boasts a long and accomplished career. And there are other ways in which she is the perfect fit, as some commentators remarked: She is the first woman to be chancellor, which pleases the Social Democrats (SPÖ). She is conservative-leaning in her interpretation of law and the role of state institutions, which soothes the Conservatives (ÖVP) and to some degree the Freedom Party (FPÖ). Lastly, she is a champion for judicial independence and the safeguarding of basic human rights, which delights the NEOS and the Liste Jetzt.
In forming her government, Bierlein managed a few other firsts for government: It is the smallest cabinet in Austrian history, comprised of only twelve members including the chancellor, and also the first to achieve gender parity – once more ensuring broad appeal and acceptance.
The political balancing act
Unlike former chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP), who was accused of filling positions left by departing FPÖ ministers only with personalities close to his party, Bierlein’s cabinet manages to keep equidistant from warring political factions. She recruited her ministers mainly from the civil service, which is why observers call her cabinet a “government of experts.” This doesn’t, however, imply political neutrality: Six ministers are said to lean toward the ÖVP, four toward the SPÖ and one to the FPÖ. None are actually party members, but in true Austrian fashion, top bureaucrats are often considered to be close to one party or another.
The members of the new government are:
- Brigitte Bierlein, Chancellor
- Clemens Jabloner, Vice Chancellor, Minister for Justice, Reform, the Constitution & Deregulation
- Iris Eliisa Rauska, Minister for Education, Science & Research
- Brigitte Zarfl, Minister for Labor, Social Affairs, Health & Consumers
- Ines Stilling, Minister for Women & Family
- Maria Patek, Minister for Sustainability & Tourism
- Elisabeth Udolf-Strobl, Minister for the Economy & Digitalization
- Alexander Schallenberg, Minister of Foreign Affairs and for Art, Culture & Media
- Wolfgang Peschorn, Interior Minister
- Eduard Müller, Minister of Finances, the Civil Service & Sport
- Andreas Reichhardt, Minister for Infrastructure, Innovation & Technology
- Thomas Starlinger, Minister of Defense
The right amount of governance
While most expect the cabinet to stick to day-to-day administration, ORF anchorman Armin Wolf has floated some reform ideas that an expert government would be well-suited to tackle: One is regulation of the public broadcaster ORF, to safeguard its financing and independence. Another would be cleaning up the opaque laws that govern public and private party financing.
Whether Bierlein will follow through on these issues or simply hold the reins of government until the politicians return remains to be seen. Either way, this summer Austria is in for a new political experience.