Austria’s refugee crisis has not only polarized the political landscape,  it has split the country’s ruling party right down the middle

As every seasoned police officer knows, fights within families are among the most unpleasant confrontations on the beat.  As tempers escalate, ancient animosities come spilling out, household implements become lethal weapons and the basic social unit – the family – reveals itself as a simmering volcano waiting to erupt.  Such is the quarrel raging here in Austria, within the basic family unit of politics – the party.

The family in question is the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ) and the conflict is over the handling of the on-going refugee crisis. The rift is the classic inner-party fault line between ideological purists and the weary pragmatists in government who actually have to make things work (observers of American politics, think Sanders vs. Clinton).  Senior partner in the coalition government, Chancellor Werner Faymann and his ministers have to demonstrate to a nervous and increasingly resentful majority of Austrians that they are dealing with the surge of asylum seekers through 2015 and on into this year.

The lapdog shows his teeth


As the German chancellor Angela Merkel announced her “Willkommenskultur”  last summer, Austria’s Faymann rallied meekly behind her and was promptly disparaged as “Mutti Merkel’s lapdog”.  The government’s apparent inability to either stem the flow or look after the exhausted human flotsam arriving every day infuriated voters across the board, from the hard right “keep ’em out” to the caring left dismayed by the slum-like misery in the makeshift camps. The solution was typically (perhaps charmingly?) Austrian:  a gradual drift under force of circumstances until a complete volte-face was presented as statesmanlike government policy. Austria broke ranks with high-minded bully-boy neighbor Germany and engineered a cascade of frontier closings along the so-called Balkan route. From Slovenia to Serbia and Macedonia, the razor wire was rolled out.  Now the government has outlined its emergency measures bill, an elegantly constructed bundle of restrictions to be activated as needed.  Our Kanzler demonstrates decisiveness, Oh tu felix Austria!  Faymann’s dismal approval ratings shot up.

Pragmatic principles

The family spat came to a head at the SPÖ Vienna’s annual conference in mid April.  The press pictures told a clear story:  On the podium the grey haired pols, with Faymann and presidential candidate Rudolf Hundstorfer facing off against bumptious young socialists in black jeans waving banners crying “Don’t outdo the FPÖ” (Strache’s hard right party) and “We had emergency measures already in 1933” (the Austro-Fascist Dollfuß government).  As Faymann strode in, nearly a hundred angry delegates left. So far, so much fun.

More articulate opposition came from two powerful women in the party, Renate Brauner, the executive city councillor for finance (widely tipped as mayor Häupl’s successor), and Tanja Wehsely, tireless advocate of a generous course with refugees. They saw “their” government’s policy as a clear betrayal of both the party’s traditional humanitarian principles and Austria’s international obligations under the Geneva Convention.  As Wehsely put it to DerStandard:  “We must help those who are running for their lives.”  Hundstorfer put the government’s case equally succinctly: We must be realistic about what can be done both for those living in Austria and for those looking for help. “But at some point we reach the limit of what we can do and afford.”

The Old Fox 

This left Michael Häupl, Vienna’s eternal mayor and the party‘s rock, as peacemaker.  With his typical agility he turned the tough emergency package into a concession to the bleeding hearts: “We must help people in distress,” he said, but we need this emergency package in place just in case. He went on to reassure the party faithful that Vienna alone handled 80,000 refugees during the Bosnian crisis and the present situation was still far short of overload. The motion before the convention was passed unanimously.

Only two days later, Vienna’s municipal council rejected the proposals after all. So much for staying together for the children.