She’s a fresh faced, bright-eyed optimist with an easy laugh. She is also confronting a task daunting enough to wipe the smile off the sunniest of dispositions: To restore the fortunes of a political party in serial decline. She is Pamela Rendi-Wagner of Austria’s venerable Social Democratic SPÖ, the “natural” ruling party of the Republic for most of the last 50 years, and party boss since their disastrous showing in the last national election in October 2017.

The good news / bad news is that she is not alone. Social Democrats have been losing ground to the polarized fringes across Europe: The once ruling SPD in Germany and DP in Italy have shrunk to around 18% of the vote, barely useful coalition partners. In Italy, the trend reached the limits of absurdity with a governing coalition of far left and hard right virtually eliminating the center.  In any case, once-smug Anglo-Saxons now know that stable majorities can also bring the unpredictable narcissism of the US president or a UK resembling the chaos of a Kindergarten for the mentally disturbed.

A fundamental problem for traditionally working-class parties is the discrepancy between a liberal elite leadership and an increasingly xenophobic base unnerved by surging immigration. In the party leadership, this inevitably leads to divisions between the pragmatists and the champions of principle. This split is now tearing the party apart, confided SPÖ veteran Bruno Aigner to the daily Der Standard: “The conflicts have become personal…. We no longer have a sense of unity.”  

Can Rendi-Wagner fire up a dispirited and divided party?  She is a handsome and eloquent academic, a qualified doctor before entering the political arena. Her socialist credentials are impeccable, child of a single mother growing up in social housing.  At least she understands the problem: “An aircraft flies better with two wings,” she told Profil’s Christa Zöchling. Perhaps, but it sounds suspiciously like an optimistically over-stretched metaphor to cover mission impossible. Still, she may be a good enough pilot to navigate these turbulent times.