Rendi Wagner | With Friends Like These

The Austrian Social Democrat SPÖ suffered its worst results ever in last September's general election. As pressures mount, the beleaguered party leader makes a last-ditch attempt to appeal to her base.

It’s not often that competing news media use the same picture to illustrate their individual takes on a breaking story, but last week the liberal-leaning Standard and Profil both ran a particular photo of SPÖ party boss Pamela Rendi-Wagner: a striking picture of a leading lady in trouble. All at once pensive, worried and determined – against a bold background of uncompromising socialist red. No political cartoonist could have hit it better.

The SPÖ has been a party in power in 18 of the 23 Austrian governments since 1945, even ruling alone with an absolute majority through the 1970s and early 80s. Since an humiliating 22% in September 2019, the polls now put the party at 16%, just behind the upstart Greens.  No wonder the Genossen (comrades) are highly irritated. Realizing that a dramatic move was required, Rendi-Wagner announced – in an highly unconventional move – a vote of confidence in her leadership, to the 180,000 subscription-paying party members. 

“Tactics without content”

Reactions were prompt and brutal, from friend and foe alike. Eva Konzett in the weekly Falter, Vienna’s left wing conscience and certainly an ally of the SPÖ, excoriated Rendi-Wagner for damaging the party’s prospects in the upcoming Vienna mayoral race. Rainer Nowak’s leader in his center-conservative Die Presse did not mince words: “Her action has angered and amazed … everyone (in the Vienna SPÖ).” Mayor Michael Ludwig barked: “She’ll have to face the consequences.” 

Party colleague Eva Maltschnig was given prime space in the weekend edition of DerStandard to lambaste her boss: “Tactics without content” was the crisp title of her piece, and she went on to detail the vacuity of the membership questionnaire, “a collection of total banalities.” The key question: “Should Pamela Rendi-Wagner remain Party Chairman in order to fight with the party for these important issues.” This is not the language of an even-handed enquiry, it is the phony plea of a desperate party management.

Parallels to UK

The situation for Austria’s social democrats is alarmingly similar to the current disastrous state of the British Labor Party, where the hard left mobilized activists to elect Jeremy Corbyn, who enthused loyalists but failed to reach voters. The result: the party went down to its worst defeat in living memory.

Commentators are already speculating on possible successors in the event of anything less than a resounding triumph. But three of the strongest candidates, two powerful State Presidents and Doris Bures, long standing grandee in the parliamentary party, have all (provisionally!) declined the poisoned chalice. Whoever it is, smart money is apparently betting that Pamela Rendi-Wagner will not be gracing the podium at the hallowed May 1st Labor Day parade in the heart of Vienna. 

Perhaps a final word from her onetime opponent, the disgraced former FPÖ leader H-C Strache, on Ash Wednesday: “I don’t need to criticize Pamela Rendi-Wagner.  Her own party takes care of that.”  

(Foto: Helmut Fohringer / APA / picturedesk.com)

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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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