(No) Pity for Christian Kern

Why the SPÖ leader rides his bike, has some enemies and is not to be envied.

Let’s call it a really bad losing streak, not a personal failure. The SPÖ leader and Chancellor Christian Kern, who was celebrated at the beginning of his term, actually loses the election against his challenger Sebastian Kurz – who, for Kern, was half a child, an inflated young party official of a party condemned to demise. But that’s not all, the former superstar manager of the ÖBB (the Austrian Federal Railway) has to look on as Kurz forms a government with the FPÖ. Instead of causing a huge uproar, this government then even begins gaining popularity in the polls.

The “evil” media did not even report the perceived truth about Christian Kern: That the good economic stats are less due to the Europe-wide upswing, than to his economic policies as chancellor. He was told that the seats on the opposition bench would be hard. But nobody expected it would get quite as uncomfortable as it soon became. Before the election is after the election: The going has gotten tough again for Christian Kern.

But this time, it is not Sebastian Kurz – or the media under his spell – but his own party who is making trouble. The SPÖ has a strategic problem that can be expressed in a simple question of direction: To the right or to the left ? Given the current right-wing government comprised of the ÖVP and FPÖ, many in the party believe that opting for the left flank is the better option. The trade unions, in particular, feel comfortable with waging class war and mounting the resistance to liberalizing reforms.

Christian Kern, too, believes in the mantra: Given that the Greens were kicked out of parliament and the Greens-surrogate Peter Pilz is busy with his masculinity, Kern wants to collect the left-liberal votes of the Greens. At the height of the summer heat wave, he had himself photographed on his bicycle, as he raise his voice in the fight against climate change. He had just come back from his vacation, relaxed and tanned, and the media finally seemed to be taking him seriously.

But then “a party friend” on Twitter reminded us that Kern’s predecessor, Werner Faymann, had actually been more successful, and the party infighting was finished. The SPÖ’s presumed next governor of the Burgenland, Hans-Peter Doskozil, literally spoke of a green-left Fundi (“fundamentalist”) course and is avoiding his party friend Kern. Just like the new mayor of Vienna, Michael Ludwig, Doskozil believes that the SPÖ should neither form a coalition with the Greens, the way the party does it in Vienna, nor copy them. Instead, the party ought to take a strict line on immigration and try to poach votes from the FPÖ.

And yet, that was exactly what Christian Kern has been doing: On the issue of how to deal with migration, he led the SPÖ a bit to the right. The man can’t catch a break. You can really feel sorry for him. And a journalist’s pity is close to the ultimate penalty for Christian Kern. Although, he’s already serving that one: He’s the head of the SPÖ.

Rainer Nowak
Since 2012 Editor in Chief and since 2014 Publisher of the Austrian daily Die Presse. He grew up in Vienna’s 9th district and has received several journalism prizes throughout his career.

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