Michael Häupl’s Fall From Grace

Vienna’s eternal mayor Michael Häupl is under mounting pressure to step down. And the squeeze is coming from within his own party

The basic chronology is easily told, an everyday drama of dinosaurs, foxes and family feuding. The stage is the Rotes Rathaus, the seat of Vienna’s city and provincial government and a bastion of the social democrats, as it has been since 1919 – nearly a century – other than the fascist interlude of 1934–1945.

Today, the party’s iron grip is faltering. After losing the absolute majority in 2010, the socialists had to form a coalition with those pesky Greens and now – horror of horrors – Vienna’s Mayor-for-Life Michael Häupl is being challenged from within his own party. This is lèse-majesté on a grand scale, and sadly for Häupl, no longer a capital offence.

Michael Häupl
“Make Vienna better!” Chief of the city’s housing administration Michael Ludwig could follow in Häupl’s footsteps. Pictured here with Deputy Mayor Maria Vassilakou, Häupl fears Ludwig might opt for a coalition with the FPÖ. // SPÖ Wien

At first, the coalition worked well enough. Vienna’s Green Party boss Maria Vassilakou did her best to make herself indispensable on projects within her realm (principally transit and city planning), and to demonstrate her independence, regularly arriving 15 minutes late to meetings, to the visible annoyance of the notoriously punctual Häupl. But she was no match for the canny old fox and the mayor remained firmly in control.

Last dinosaur standing

The trouble really began after the cataclysmic city election in October 2015: That was the summer of the human tsunami surging over Austria’s borders, and the city government’s “refugees welcome” did not play well in the working-class districts of Simmering and Floridsdorf. The SPÖ lost nearly 20% of the votes in these traditional socialist strongholds, almost entirely to the far right FPÖ (Freedom Party), and the local SPÖ chieftains were not amused. But even that was not enough to rattle Häupl’s throne.

“Does the last dinosaur ever know he’s the last one?” wondered the news weekly Profil in March (quoting the elfin princess in Ariana Coppens), next to a brutal close-up of a very grumpy Michael Häupl. Indeed, early in 2017, two of the three great party monarchs abandoned their thrones after more than 20 years, Erwin Pröll in Niederösterreich and Josef Pühringer in Oberösterreich (both from the conservative ÖVP), each more or less voluntarily. Pröll had been somewhat embarrassed by revelations that his own private foundation had been lavishly funded by – er – his own regional government. But the ripples were small; As Metternich famously said: “The Balkans begin at the Rennweg.”

Not quite kosher

That leaves Mayor Häupl as the last dinosaur standing. And the meteor is on its way. Not that there has been any whiff of corruption. Häupl’s administration has been generally good for the city: International business magazines regularly vote Vienna as one the most desirable postings for corporate soldiers, and those of us who live here agree.

But any political apparatus, however good, can over time become a little too comfortable. Numbers published on the public information site (wien.gv.at) show that nearly a quarter of the socialists sitting in the Vienna state parliament have additional jobs bringing in €3,500 a month or more. Only 7% of the FPÖ members earn as well outside of working hours and barely 1% of Conservatives or Greens. On top of that, many of these second jobs are with companies and organizations that are either suppliers to the city public works or recipients of tax money funding. There is a whiff of something not quite kosher. Could it be that we taxpayers are not getting full value for money? Perhaps we will never know. And since when has squeaky-clean integrity been a requirement for political effectiveness anyway? The city of Beethoven, Klimt and Sachertorte is on the whole very well run. It’s a privilege to live here, and we know it.

Ideological stand-off

The issue is, when is enough enough. Häupl’s political counterpart and good friend Erwin Pröll said, as the pressure mounted, “You have to know when it is time.” And he went. Now the pressure is mounting on Häupl and – unkindest cut of all – it is coming from his own party Genossen (comrades, a term they still use). Civil wars are the most brutal, and family feuds are famously the most vicious. The Austrian daily Der Standard reported March 16 that “the divide is opening up again,” between the ideologically driven Linken (lefties) holding most of the key jobs and the pragmatic Realos (realists) from the outer districts under pressure from their disgruntled and not islamophilic voters. The stand-off is like two medieval armies facing each other across a valley, neither eager to charge, but shooting off the occasional volley of arrows to see what happens.

At first, the lefties held the high ground. Häupl has all his life been morally committed to socialist and humanist principles, and his most important loyalists reflect this. His long serving lieutenant and finance chief Renate Brauner and his social and health minister Sonja Wehsely were both in the forefront of Vienna’s generous and well-managed acceptance program for the mass of refugee immigrants in summer 2015, at the time with the mayor’s full support.

But when pressure from the locally powerful political barons in the outlying districts turned from policy critique to doubts about Häupl’s personal capacity as mayor, his political survival instincts took over. It was time to sacrifice a few virgins. Brauner, long considered his natural successor, was too respected. But Wehsely was having a hard time: She was responsible for the hospital expansion that was over budget and behind schedule, and the popular press was having a field day with covert snapshots of patients abandoned on their gurneys along the endless corridors of major city hospitals. And she was out of the country on holiday. She landed early one morning at Schwechat to be greeted by an army of reporters eager to tell her she had been fired. Loyal to the last, she announced with admirable casualness that she already a better job with Siemens Healthcare waiting for her in Germany. That’s Realpolitik, Genossin.

Tired old fox

One of Michael Häupl’s greatest political talents is his foxlike skill in throwing pursuers off the scent by ignoring criticism and diverting the conversation. Internal party criticism was at first ill-defined, a growing unease that Häupl was losing touch with his base. He seemed to have given up the middle ground in working-class areas and the next generation of SPÖ voters were deserting en masse to Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ. The massive election losses in 2015 were of course aggravated by the refugee crisis, but they were also part of a long-term slide in the SPÖ’s fortunes. Back in 1973, the party polled over 60% in Vienna, by 2001, it had dropped to 47% and in 2015 it sunk to 39%.

Overall the ground is shifting, the old line Austrian centrist parties are losing voter share in Austria, and indeed all across Europe. When Häupl ascended the Rathaus throne he was even able to reverse the trend for some years, and Vienna is still one of the few federal states under social-democrat control. But there is no gratitude in politics: The rebels smelled blood and the old fox was getting tired, they thought.

The core of the emerging Realo rebels’ demand was that Häupl Rex make provision for his successor – a lightly coded demand that it was time to go, but still provocation enough to unleash the hounds of war. Party secretary Georg Niedermühlbichler’s warning that no one “should mess with Häupl” was answered with cries of “scandalous” from the rebel trenches. Ex-party chairman Christian Deutsch did not mince words. “There is unease and a bad feeling in the whole party,” he told Der Standard on March 23. In Austria there is a saying that when a fish goes bad, it starts to stink from the head down. The criticism was no longer coded: Forget the arrows, this was becoming hand-to-hand combat.

Michael Ludwig
The issue of a successor, of course, poses the question: Who? For the Realos, it could not be Häupl’s faithful right hand Renate Brauner. As a fully paid up Linke, she was too far to the left on just those social issues that were causing the voters to desert the old party in droves. A consensus was growing that the right person was Michael Ludwig, the well-liked and respected chief of the city’s housing administration, and generally credited with the successfully continuation of Vienna’s admired social housing program. He is also a Häupl trusty, but one that the pragmatists from the outlying battlefields feel they can do business with. Ludwig is one of them, an easy-going fellah-next-door type, who has laboriously worked his way up through the labyrinth of the party hierarchy. And all important, he is not one of those touchy-feely liberals from the chardonnay-and-social-conscience wing of the party.

Taboo or not taboo

But the mayor has a different problem with Ludwig, although they apparently get on well together, both professionally and personally. Ludwig is a pragmatic, let’s-get-the-job-done political manager and Häupl is afraid that with Ludwig in charge one of the Vienna party’s long standing taboos will be finally breached – a coalition with the archenemy, Strache’s right wing FPÖ. Even in 2015, the year of the election debacle, Häupl was unqualified. “A coalition with these Freiheitlichen is not possible,” he told Der Standard (June 2, 2015). If the current trend continues, the SPÖ could lose another 5% in the next election, to about 35% or worse; a coalition with the Greens (currently at around 12%) will no longer make a governing majority. The FPÖ at a solid 30% are riding high and the coalition taboo has already been breached in Burgenland.

This is a nightmare scenario for the old socialist warhorse and his liberal coterie presently dominating the administration. For the left-wingers the longer the succession question can be kept open, the better their chances of establishing an alternative candidate to the suspect Michael Ludwig.

Liver sausages have feelings too

True to his image as a straight dealer, Ludwig announced clearly that he had no intention of standing as candidate against Häupl at the upcoming party conference. This did not mollify the wily mayor, who immediately mounted an elegant dodge-and-duck counter-offensive. The whole discussion of his possible stepping down was “deeply disrespectful and not to be tolerated,” he barked. Predictably, this earned him a barrage of sardonic abuse: “With all due respect,” Deutsch told the tabloid Österreich March 28, “the mayor often acts like an offended prima donna.” (In German: beleidigte Leberwurst, or liver sausage.) The remark may have been crude, but Häupl’s firm opinion of his own irreplaceability was perhaps just too easy a target. Some years ago he published a collection of his speeches under the somewhat obscure title “Dosen abfüllen können andere billiger” (more or less, “There will always be others who can do it cheaper.”). In other words, a typically modest Häupl claims, “I’m the quality product.”

But a fox also knows that the hounds need to be rewarded for the chase. In a typical feint, he then announced that, of course, he had to stay on in order to support Chancellor Christian Kern by shoring up the SPÖ in Vienna for the upcoming Nationalrat (Federal Parliament) elections due in October this year. Immediately after that, he said, “we can discuss everything.” In one stroke he diverted the discussion away from the successor issue, but left open a window of hope. Another leading rebel, Harald Troch from Simmering, responded grumpily: “Well all right, but then immediately after the election.” So the dinosaur still roams, fox and hounds are at “one-all,” and the family feud continues.


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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