Austria’s new media-savvy chancellor Christian Kern offers a “New Deal,” while facing down the far right

It was high drama in the Austrian Parliament on the morning of June 15, as FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache, amid hooting and hollering from his backbenchers, lit into the leadership, accusing them of manipulating the refugee numbers. Under the heading “security, not statistical trickery,” Strache called the 37,500 upper limit on asylum applications a “marketing gag,” the calculations “disingenuous.”

Christian Kern (SPÖ) was ready for him. “I’m pleased you used that tone of voice,” the new chancellor said easily. “Because the whole subject is unsuited to this kind of escalation, to a tone that comes close to baiting and bullying.” Startled, Strache demanded an apology. Having received online threats from some of Strache’s followers of a “swift bullet,” Kern continued unapologetically. “My plea for a civilized tone in this debate is so important, because we know from history, how quickly violent words can explode into violent actions.”

It wasn’t the first time Kern had spoken up. His first address in Parliament following the resignation of Werner Faymann, promised to “nourish hope, rather than fear,” offering a “New Deal” of public and private investment to revitalize the economy. Then in an editors round table on May 25, he had outlined his vision for winning back discouraged voters, adjusting the rules of the game to support innovation and create jobs, while leaving more money in the hands of consumers – a promise to put practical energy behind a traditional social democratic message.

But in this watershed moment in Parliament, Austria’s new chancellor had, after just one month in office, succeeded in facing down the far right and in full view of both press and public, setting the government in a new direction.

To his supporters, Kern is a revelation: Fellow Social Democrats are effusive about the return to open discussion within the party. His coalition partner Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner (ÖVP) praises his candid manner, with “no trace of Faymann’s siege mentality.” Kern likes to talk to reporters and is admired for responding to questions unscripted. This can be dangerous, as when he mistook data on “asylum seekers” for those already granted asylum status. Opponents pounced, but few were listening.

Of course there are naysayers: Andreas Kirchner, writing in Der Standard on June 21, was frustrated with the “uncritical cult of personality” surrounding the chancellor. “It doesn’t do Christian Kern any good to be so praised before he has had a chance to do anything.” Still he admires Kern’s skill with the media — captured adroitly dribbling a soccer ball in the Chancellery and arm in arm with body-painted revelers at the recent Rainbow Parade.

It’s all show, dismissed Florian Gasser and Joachim Riedl in Die Zeit on June 16. The old political squabbles have already resurfaced – time-worn issues like raising value-added taxes or social insurance for refugees – that will paralyze any impulses to good government. Kern has a delicate balancing act, they wrote, to show his coalition partners the benefits of shared successes, while convincing his core voting block that he is committed to reform.

We wish him well.

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Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of METROPOLE. Over a long career in journalism she has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler in New York, the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two US ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching for her work at the Department of Media Communications for Webster University Worldwide. In 2010, she was granted Austrian Citizenship of Honor (Ehrenstaatsbürgerschaft) for outstanding contributions to the Austrian Republic