The Caretakers Go About Their Business

The interim government of bureaucrats is giving Austria far more than its first female Chancellor

If the old adage is true that every country gets the government it deserves, Austria just dodged a bullet: The transitional government of Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein, until recently president of the Constitutional Court and now, Austria’s first female head of state, has been in office just two weeks and already has some impressive results.

Appointed by President Alexander Van der Bellen in the wake of the Ibiza video scandal that toppled Sebastian Kurz’s conservative-far right coalition, this caretaker administration of senior civil servants has been tasked with continuing the work of government until snap elections take place in late September.

The interim ministers have dealt with an avalanche of proposals from parliament over the last few days, including long overdue motions to introduce bans on  smoking in bars and restaurants and the controversial herbicide Glyphosate, to raise the minimum pension and Pflegegeld (disability benefits) and extend marital rights to couples from countries that don’t recognize same-sex matrimony. And while final votes are pending, at least some of the proposals are expected to pass the general assembly before the summer recess begins in July.

A Parliament Set Free

Naturally, this is not Bierlein or her administration’s doing: It’s rather the result of a parliament unfettered by coalitions parties, each jockeying to score vital points among with its base in the run-up to an unexpected election. It’s the same crowd-pleasing populist pandering that lead to all parties left and right, excepting the ÖVP, voting last week to shutter the Saudi-funded KAICIID dialogue center. Politics indeed makes strange bedfellows.

One wonders if it might not be better to keep things as they are. After all, what can we expect come election day on Sep 29? Judging from current polls, Kurz’s ÖVP stands to come out of Ibiza-gate stronger than ever – although probably not strong enough to rule alone, something no one has managed since Chancellor Bruno Kreisky’s absolute majority in the 1970s, before Kurz was born.

Which means that barring an unexpectedly strong showing for the ideologically close NEOS, Kurz would have to enter a coalition with either the social democrats of the SPÖ or his recent partners, the far-right FPÖ. This won’t be easy as buthe went out of his way to antagonize the former during his administration, while the latter given is burdened by public indignation over (currently) disgraced ex-chairman HC Strache’s shenanigans.

Benevolent Bureaucrats

The only credible way to justify yet another coalition with the FPÖ would be as a “new, reformed party” that has learned from its mistakes and drained the swamp. This would be tricky, since as Strache’s wife Philippa has been promised a seat in parliament and HC himself is planning to run for mayor in 2020, provided there are no charges against him.

While it’s still early days, the likeliest outcome is continuing deadlock – it may take months to hammer out a new coalition, if one can be made at all. Chancellor Bierlein’s cabinet may not have democratic legitimacy, but considering the last few months in Austrian politics, a short spell under the benevolent guiding hand of Austrian bureaucrats may not be such a bad thing.

Binu Starnegg
Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub

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