From Proporz to Verhaberung, participation and influence in Austria go far beyond the walls of Parliament to find an “Austrian solution”. 

By Margaret Childs & Benjamin Wolf

We just moved in,” she said, ushering me into the freshly-painted headquarters of Austria’s youngest political party, Liste Pilz. Underneath a wild head of curls and bubbly enthusiasm, Stephanie Cox is just as new to the game. “I was actually planning to move to Berlin when I got the call.” Her first reaction was to decline. But, it wasn’t long before she became inspired by the role she could play. “I had the privilege to grow up in surroundings with plenty of opportunities, and I still had to fight, ” she said with a nod. Her parents were always behind her convictions, but she had to make her own way. When she got this chance, she decided, “I can’t wait 10 years for the political system to change.”

Parliamentary rookie Cox, who entered politics after half a decade in the startup scene and launching the refugee job fair Chancenreich, isn’t put off by her own lack of experience. “It’s like a startup,” Cox grinned.

Of course Cox isn’t exactly typical. On many levels Austrian politics behaves much more like a legacy company coming to grips with changing circumstances. Forming a coalition in a parliamentary democracy with two establishment parties and three in the opposition is complicated, and creating the Liste Pilz is still a work in progress. After stepping down following anonymous allegations of sexual harassment, party leader Peter Pilz announced in January that he will re-join the party and change its name – suggesting an infant party that has not yet learned to sit up straight, much less walk the talk.

In recent history, the country has seen populist parties come and go, leaving behind a strong opposition and rejection of extremist politics. But, the anger and shock is there, says Wolfgang Zinggl, former Green-Party MP and now with Liste Pilz. “In 2000, we had this situation and it was pretty hairy and people were afraid. There were protest marches as new laws were passed, but eventually the pendulum swung back.” Wait and see. The politics will figure itself out.

politics austria
Bruno Kreisky, 1983 // © Wikicommons

I Sogs Glei, I Woars Ned (I’m Just Sayin’, it Wasn’t me)

Following Austria’s 2017 elections, international media responded with alarm: Headlines ranged from “Austria Shifts Right” to “The Far Right Is Now in Power in Austria”. Inside the country, the reaction was a bit different. While the Twittersphere erupted in calls to action and opinion pieces speculated on developments in the years to come, the government retreated to distribute ministries and negotiate the terms of the coalition. Now, as the first statements are being released, the first press conferences held by ministers, the first interviews given, it feels like a state of limbo.

But it also seems markedly different from 1999/2000, when the first ÖVP-FPÖ government was formed: On Heldenplatz, 150,000 gathered that February in protest and the European Union reacted with informal sanctions. “With populist and right-wing parties gaining strength all across Europe, this time the shock about Austria’s new government is muted at best,” says Ferdinand Karlhofer, professor for political science at the University of Innsbruck. Perhaps people feel reassured that just one year ago, a healthy majority of Austrians elected President Alexander Van der Bellen, the first and only European head of state with a Green party background.

Nur Nix Neichs (Just Nothing New)

“In a way, it is a normalization of the Austrian political landscape,” Karlhofer suggests. “Instead of ‘two and a half party system’ that set Austria apart for decades, we’ve now got a diversified party system with a strong populist tilt, just like many other European countries.” Indeed, many features of the old system remain in place, ones that turned Austria into a model social democracy and a beacon of freedom and prosperity after 1945.

In the embattled First Republic (1918-34), Socialists and Christian Democrats struggled over the Austrian soul – between quality of (secular) life for the working class and what the right considered a deeper identity in church and nation – before they skidded into a civil war in 1934. With the banning of the Socialist Party, Austrian democracy was destroyed for a decade, with four years of Austrofascism and seven of National Socialism, following the Anschluss to Hitler’s Germany in 1938. It was these traumas that inspired the Austrian’s unique model of Sozialpartnerschaft (Social Partnership), which brings together representatives of businesses, workers and politicians to agree on mutually acceptable terms before new laws are drafted.

“This model of ‘Austro Corporatism’ was even a role model on the European level in the 1990s, when a social dialogue was established,” Karlhofer says, even though the allure receded in the ensuing decades of globalization and internationalization. For Austria, however, the model is still vital. The core of the Sozialpartnerschaft contains no fewer than 16 Kammern (chambers) that represent different groups and stakeholders in society. From specialized, like the Ärztekammer (chamber for doctors), to the three major ones – the Landwirtschaftskammer (Agricultural Chamber), the Wirtschaftskammer (Chamber of Commerce) and the Arbeiterkammer (Workers’ Chamber) – they are all tightly woven into the political system. Businesses, employees, independent professionals and many others are automatically members and fund the organizations with modest annual dues.

In return, the chambers offer their expertise and advocacy free to members, but also pull their weight in shaping national policy. Governments approach the Sozialpartner regularly with an issue and receive a suggested template for a new law. Regardless of the party in power, finding a consensus is paramount – and achieved surprisingly often. Austria became known for its excellent industry-labor relations and strike rates – along with Switzerland and Japan – the lowest in the world.

Des Passt Schon (We’ll Figure it out)

The two main parties that dominated both elections and the chambers for decades after 1945 had a major role in this successful model. “Until the 1990s, the SPÖ and the ÖVP always had 80-90% of the votes between them,” Karlhofer points out. And for most of the time, they governed together in a Grand Coalition – 44 years out of 72 years – or alone (the ÖVP under Klaus from 1966 to 1970, the SPÖ under Kreisky from 1970 to 1983). Hannes Androsch, Austrian Finance Minister under Kreisky is adamant about the benefits of this arrangement. “The Grand Coalition was – with all its flaws –the best thing that could have happened to our country after World War II.”

© Shutterstock

In many Austrian Bundesländer (federal states), the system of Proporz (proportional distribution of positions) even foresaw that regional government should reflect election results, thus giving the parties a permanent stake in ruling. Similarly, your chances for a public sector job – and there were many of those in Austria with its nationalized industry, its government-controlled health care and school systems as well as public housing – were immeasurably higher when you had a party book. Almost every hospital, for instance used to have two directors, one “red” (social-democratic) and one “black” (conservative), a pattern repeated throughout the hierarchy. Railing against this system was one of the strongest draws of the FPÖ, especially during the Jörg Haider years.

Haltet’s Zam (Stay Together)

Austria’s rates of party memberships per capita rival those of China and are by far the highest number in all of Europe, even in countries far larger. In fact, the ÖVP is the biggest European party by membership – its 600,000 members dwarf the German CDU’s 430,000. The SPÖ, with more than 200,000 members, easily bests the British Tories’ 150,000 and that’s without taking into account the more than 300,000 members of the tightly party-affiliated Austrian Pensioner’s Association. Even the British Labour, which after its recent surge to 570,000 claims to be the largest political party in Europe, is no match for Austria’s Christian Democrats. Mind you, Austria has a mere 8.7 million inhabitants to Germany’s 82.8 million and Britain’s 65.6 million, so perhaps it’s not surprising that the country tries to govern by consensus – literally everybody has a very concrete stake and a bit of leverage in the whole process.

In a last hurrah for this old consensual model, the chambers’ role in the Sozialpartnerschaft was enshrined in constitutional law in 2008 (as öffentliche Körperschaften). The new government has now set its eyes on the Arbeiterkammer (AK, Workers’ Chamber), traditionally dominated by the now opposition Social Democrats, but will have a struggle to effect massive changes without the constitutional majority it lacks. “Let’s see if they will really go there,” says Karlhofer, recalling a similar foray in 2003 to lower the fixed AK contributions from 0.5% to 0.3% of an employee’s salary. “It didn’t fly back then, and it will also be controversial this time around. The government will think twice before taking on this fight.”

This alludes to another feature of the Austrian political system and, in fact, Austrian society, that still holds true, in spite of all recent changes. Austrians long for stability, that everybody sich verträgt (gets along well) and they abhor open conflict and radical change. While this sometimes gets in the way of a proper debate – the nation’s popular TV anchorman Armin Wolf is often reproached for being too “bossy” with politicians and supposedly “rudely” interrupting them too often – it also ensures that politicians cannot score points with divisive policies once in power. Even the FPÖ, the firebrand par excellence in election campaigns, quickly tones down its rhetoric and proposals once in government (despite the regular gaffe, like the FPÖ Herbert Kickl’s, below).

Political manifestos are not just enacted unilaterally. Instead, politicians or the Sozialpartner float ideas that are then discussed and dissected on the Stammtische (regulars’ tables) of the nation and often rewritten, amended or retracted. It is often politics by tectonics, listening to the little shifts in the public mood or the countless voices making themselves heard in the vast apparatus of chambers, organizations or regional party groups in the Bundesländer.

The result is that radical proposals, even if sometimes touted by politicians, rarely get enacted. Instead, the Austrian consensus model steers policies to the mutually accepted center ground on most issues. So it’s no coincidence, for example, that the ÖVP in the 1980s campaigned on the promise to “bring the ship of state into balance” during the years of Kreisky’s SPÖ-majority rule.

Sei Ned So Schiach (Don’t be so Mean)

There’s an Austrian word that goes hand-in-hand with the relationship between Austrian media and politics: “Verhaberung”. Essentially, the word comes from “Haberer” which means a buddy (or less flatteringly, a henchman) and it implies that journalists or entire media organizations are in bed with certain political parties and politicians.

This is no secret. The relationships between journalists and politicians can be complicated, as Hans Rauscher wrote in a opinion piece in Der Standard last September. “It’s certainly the case that the professional contact between politicians and journalists can develop into half-personal contact (…) For professional and ethically sound journalists, it should not be a problem to differentiate, if need be.”

This issue has colored Austrian political coverage for decades. Considering the size of the country, it’s nearly impossible to avoid such connections, and correcting for bias an essential professional discipline. Still, a 2010 report, “Political Journalism in Austria”, found that 73% percent of the journalists interviewed felt that the lack of distance was problematic.

On an institutional level, the affiliations between media companies and political parties are open, and taken as a matter of course. The biggest owners of media are not just people like Christoph Dichand (Kronen Zeitung, Heute), and Wolfgang Fellner’s family (Österreich), but also Raiffeisen Bank (Kurier, NÖN), and the Catholic Church (Styria Media Group, NÖN).

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Austria’s legendary federal Chancellor Bruno Kreisky (l.) photographed with the later President Heinz Fischer, who was then deputy head of the Socialist Party (SPÖ). // © Wikicommons

But it’s not simply the political affiliations of the owners that define the relationships between media and government.

Wolfgang Zinggl of the Liste Pilz says it’s important to differentiate from medium to medium. “The Kronen Zeitung is, and has long been, a mighty clan, which is closely connected to Heute. Together they are an enormous force when it comes to power and readership and dictating policy.”

He explained that politicians often are afraid of this power. “This fear and the amount of advertisements booked in these papers are linked.” Politicians hope these ads will translate into being featured positively in editorial coverage. Especially when elections come up, politicians at the top encounter this dilemma, explained Zinggl. They have a responsibility to the public. “So they agree with the Kronen Zeitung until they get reprimanded by their voters.” This back and forth goes on, he says, because the Kronen Zeitung is not tied to any particular party. They’re after readership and clicks. “They are a business.”

During the campaign, after Fellner’s free daily Österreich published an internal SPÖ dossier, Kern said he’d stop campaign advertising in the newspaper and declined to be interviewed on Fellner’s TV station OE24, with the words “there are limits.” Fellner defended the choice to publish the dossier saying it was his “journalistic duty.” Promptly thereafter Österreich published a picture of Chancellor Kern in a princess costume, calling him a “Mimose” or wimp.

The result of this very public tiff was a steep drop in polling numbers for the chancellor and perhaps, in the end, his loss of the election. A source close to the government and media explained, “Kern shouldn’t have done that. It’s just not how things work. Fellner is a guy you can talk to.” In the tradition of Verhaberung, disagreements should be resolved among friends.

Nur Ned Hudln (Take it Slow)

But Austrian politics happens in many places, not just in Parliament. With the recent shifts in public mood, the cards are far from dealt. The parties are repositioning: With the Greens out of Parliament and the new Liste Pilz in, with both the interior and foreign ministers appointed by the Freedom Party, the population is poised to see how this constellation will play out.

Regardless of the speculation and illadvised statements by government officials – like Interior Minister Herbert Kickl’s use of the word “concentrated” when speaking about where refugees should be housed – the past few decades have shown that change seldom happens quickly in Austria.

But according to Wolfgang Zinggl, the reason is that the parties don’t want to lose votes in the upcoming elections in Lower Austria, Tyrol, Salzburg and Carinthia.

“They have to be careful that they don’t lose potential votes in the regional elections by passing dumb laws. They’ll lay low for a while, so the voters will think “what’s everybody so worked up about.“

Then, he says, there will be wave of uncomfortable laws, “because that’s how the ÖVP’s operates. They are well-behaved and nothing’s going to happen.” But he warns that restrictions to the rights of foreigners and some neoliberal economic legislation are waiting in the wings. Then there is the FPÖ, he adds. Traditionally, they rely on strong statements, “on the little man who likes to be goschat (rowdy) and the people who say, ‘so, now we need to get the foreigners out of here.’” He says they want things to be radical, they want action, like in a bar brawl, “You’re a pig, I’m gonna hit you.”

Zinggl doesn’t see a long future for the coalition. Part of the consensus machine seems to be the predictability of bad behavior.

Since 1995, Austria has been part of a bigger union. Androsch believes that Austria’s current economic stability is thanks to open borders and new opportunities for trade. “In the era of globalization, Austria can only thrive as a part of Europe.”

Da Samma Dabei (We’re Part of it)

Every month, the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) travel to Strasbourg for one week. Entering the building on the Avenue du Président Robert Schuman, the diversity dazzles you. The languages you hear in the hallways, the faces you see and the food served in the cantina – everything from mozarrella Italiana to French baguette, Central European pumpkin soup and Baltic fish stew. Glass fronts, wide corridors and lush vines dominate the interior, as if to show that one is nurturing here, openly, the green shoots of European concord and cooperation.

The Austrian MEP Lukas Mandl, at 38 years the youngest of Austria’s deputies to the European Parliament, arrived in December for his first plenary session. He followed in the footsteps of the ÖVP’s Elisabeth Köstinger, who was appointed Minister for Sustainability and Tourism in the new coalition. On the European level, Mandl will be a part of the European People’s Party (EPP) faction.

“For me, the European Union is a superpower of peace,” he gushes. “Our expertise in fostering reconciliation, building peace and sustaining it is unique worldwide – we should use this knowledge!” In the EP, Mandl will be a part of the Bosnia-Kosovo Dialogue, the Petition Committee, the African Delegation and the Committee for Health and Environment. His broad dossier shows how fast MEPs have to become experts on a great number of complex topics. The leader of Austria’s ÖVP delegation, long-serving MEP Othmar Karas, recently finished his dissertation on the European Parliament as the core of the continent’s democracy.

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© Illustration by Karin Dreher

“This is the most transparent parliament [in Europe], where individual representatives have the greatest capacity to shape things,” Karas points out. Since there is no European government coaxing its own deputies to vote a certain way, majorities have to be found case by case. “The questions is,” says Karas, “do we want to nationalize globalization or democratize it?”

For Mandl, who “self-activated” politically in 1994 when he campaigned for Austria to join the EU in the 1995 referendum, the European dimension has become natural. So natural in fact, the Union should not fear pointed criticism anymore, he says. The debate should not be about an eternal “In or Out”, as the British are doing, but instead a passionate “How?”

True to Austria’s self-image, Mandl’s motto for his tenure in the European Parliament is “Building Bridges;” between East and West and to other parts of the world, but crucially also between voters and their representatives. “The people know what they need a hairdresser for, but not a deputy.”

The key is in our expectations: “Democracy is always a process, never a stable state,” he points out. “Parliamentarism is truly one of humanity’s great inventions, up there with the wheel, electricity and light bulb – our way of ensuring that conflicts won’t be dealt with on the streets with blows and punches, but on these wooden benches, with words, votes and convictions.”

Back in Vienna, Stephanie Cox has found a way to voice her convictions about innovation, digitalization and the changes it will bring to the labor force. As she is settling into her role in the Parliament, she’s adamant about seeing the bigger picture Austria is helping to paint.

“I love Europe and I’ve had a lot of advantages from being part of it,” she mused. “As for Austria, I grew up here and have so much to be thankful for, from my education and the security I enjoyed to the cultural exchange.” It is a world she will do her best to hand on to her children.