Emergency Power Binge | Will Kurz Be Able to Kick the Habit?

Casandras are never popular, they are seen as whiners who predict things no one wants. The curse was, she was always right. As the horror of Corona loomed just over the border in Italy, there was broad public acceptance for tough government measures unthinkable in normal times. Basic personal freedoms were restricted by fiat: freedom of movement, freedom to meet, even freedom of where to eat. 

Yet parallel to a (sometimes) grudging approval, constitutional lawyers and political commentators are becoming increasingly worried that Kanzler Sebastian Kurz, an acknowledged control freak, will be reluctant to relinquish new found powers as the crisis subsides. Viktor Orban’s Hungary just an hour’s drive from Vienna is an ominous warning.

A good dose of danger usually helps the government of the day, a surge of tribal solidarity around the leader, as long as he or she projects a can-do sense of purpose – Mayor Andrew Cuomo in New York, Kanzlerin Angela Merkel in Germany – and Kurz here in Austria. The recent Sonntagsfrage (whom you would vote for if the election were next Sunday) puts the ruling ÖVP close to an absolute majority (48%), and the once dominant SPÖ (social democrats) demoted to a minor player at 16%.

But sunny weather never holds for long in a healthy democracy, the storm clouds of criticism are already closing in. There are two major issues: Is this authoritarian or illegal – or both? What follows is a somewhat arbitrary chronology of critical media voices.

Hostile fire from the left

Eva Linsinger in the liberal-centrist weekly Profil was one of the first to flag the coming dangers (March 22).  Leaders across Europe are restricting basic human rights at breathtaking speed to slow the spread of Corona, she wrote. Perhaps they are right, but she feels uncomfortable: “Does Corona excuse everything?”

A week later her colleague at Profil Rosemarie Schwaiger chimed in, more forthrightly: “The battle cry ʼWhatever the costʼ  … is a lie.” Armin Thurnher, founder and Chief Editor of the Village Voice look-alike Falter and the nation’s left wing conscience in residence, saw the bigger picture.  The Corona crisis is a test for society, not just for healthcare, but for the whole climate of communications. Then he added an ominous quote from Carl Schmitt, one of Adolf Hitler’s eager cheerleaders back in the day: “Itʼs the one who takes charge in an emergency who gets all the credit.” Another article in Profil carried an update on three authoritarian rulers profiting from Corona: Natanjahu, Xi Jinping and Orban. Implication clear.

By early April, the criticism was becoming more targeted to the Austrian government’s modus operandi in Parlament. “The political consensus will not hold much longer,” predicted Fabian Schmidt in the center left Der Standard. The government’s ploy of bundling a collection of varied measures into a single legislative package meant there could be no constructive cooperation between the ruling parties and the opposition. They were simply being steam-rollered. Nikolaus Scherak of the center right NEOs told the daily Kurier: “Health Minister Anschober’s Easter Diktat forbidding more than five people getting together in one room … goes too far.” A clear invasion of privacy? For the NEOs certainly, but for some constitutional lawyers adequately covered by Par. 15 of the pandemic legislation. The smoldering discussion had now burst into flame.

Parliamentary President Wolfgang Sobotka (from Kurzʼs ÖVP) was ready to pour more oil on the fire: He proposed the Stopp Corona surveillance app developed by the Red Cross become mandatory – but an immediate media firestorm forced him to retract the following day. Woke media doing their job.

Difficult times produce great soundbites: “Democracy is now Protectocracy,” thundered Sven Gächter in Der Standard. Protection at all costs is OK, he said, but for how long? We are still far away from the Orban (Hungary) and Lukaschenko (Belarus) authoritarian regimes, “but not as far away as we were a month ago.” The danger for democracy, he pointed out, is not that autocrats eliminate it, but that they get away with things that then become acceptable.

Yes, the government is getting it mainly right, he opined, but the border between autocracy and democracy is surprisingly fluid. (Think of the 60% plus election results for Orban and Russia’s Vladimir Putin). Philipp Blom, writing in Profil from his lofty perch as an historian, was surprised at the public’s meek acceptance. The real danger, he said, is that solidarity can morph into conformity, law abidance into democratic apathy. So far the focus has been on the issue: What happens to restrictive regulations when the crisis is over?

The tone has turned to Kanzler Kurz

Procedural criticism is dry stuff, but people criticism is the meat and drink of the media. The spotlight now turns on the architect of the Corona policy, Kanzler Sebastian Kurz, interviewed by Fabian Schmidt for Der Standard April 16: Why is he showing so little respect for the other political parties? The Kanzler kept his cool, pleading for understanding: “We had to do so much overnight.” A reason yes, but a justification?

Schwaiger in Profil swung back into action. She was angry at Interior Minister Karl Nehammer for the draconian enforcement measures: “Operetten-Polizeistaat.” Although she appreciates the difficulties for individual officers on the ground, she beats a familiar Austrian drum: “The spirit of Metternich is abroad in the land.” The philosopher Franz Schuh the same: “This is a rehearsal for the totalitarian state.”

Daily, writers in the more thoughtful media expanded on this sense of growing unease. 

A political cartoon can sometimes sum up acres of newsprint: Der Standard April 16 showed Kurz wearing a cute little crown fending off an Austrian rot-weiss-rot Justizia carrying a copy of the Constitution. “Don’t bother me with details” he is saying. “Keep your distance, better still stay at home.” The accompanying leader from Michael Völker took a tougher tone: “The need to act fast does not justify a judicial putsch.”

This question of whether the ends justify the means remained a core theme for political commentators. A few days later, Conrad Seidl (Der Standard) demonstrated how difficult it was to take a moral attitude on measures that are undeniably helping to hold back the virus. He even had to reluctantly agree with all liberal’s arch bogeyman Herbert Kickl (leader of the far right FPÖ) that the Kurz government is offering parliament no opportunity to debate, just “friss oder stirb” (take it or leave it). “Criticism” Seidl penned “is not lèse-majesté. We don’t have a monarch, the people are the Sovereign.”

Too much consensus can also become numbing. Peter Sander in the center-right Die Presse was pragmatic: “Covid-19 and the Constitution – so what’s the problem?” Personal restrictions are normal in a democratic society anyway: Prisoners are locked up, barkeepers told when to close down etc. He disagrees with critics obsessed with legalities; the basis for the laws is very precise. “All measures necessary to impede the spread of Covid-19.” Do the means justify the ends? The debate continues.

PS: The eerie lack of critical comment in the Boulevard mass dailies: Could it be because they are main financial beneficiaries of the government’s media support package? 

(Foto: https://www.facebook.com/sebastiankurz.at/photos)

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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