Aus­trian elec­tion: It’s the econ­omy, Dummkopf!

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

Aus­tria is one Europe’s rich­est coun­tries, yet the hills are alive not with op­ti­mism but with wor­ries about the econ­omy, boost­ing the far-right can­di­date ahead of De­cem­ber 4’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. At the grotty job cen­tre in Vi­enna’s fifth dis­trict, for in­stance, man­ager Astrid Mayer is busy.

“Things are get­ting worse ev­ery year,” Mayer told AFP. “The fig­ures speak for them­selves. I’ve been here for 15 years and I’ve never seen it like this.”

When Mayer started, the job­less rate was “three point some­thing”, she says. Now it’s 8.6 per­cent. Ad­justed to com­pare with the rest of the Euro­pean Union, it’s 6.3 per­cent, no longer the low­est in the bloc. Doris Blei is one of the lucky ones. The 48-year-old has found a new job af­ter be­ing laid off by her bank. “Lots of banks are re­duc­ing head­count. It’s hard, par­tic­u­larly when you get older,” she told AFP as she queued up. And even those in work don’t nec­es­sar­ily have it easy. Some 400,000 peo­ple are clas­si­fied as the “work­ing poor”-in em­ploy­ment but un­able to get by.

‘De­mor­al­is­ing’

Aus­tria is on the cross­roads be­tween Italy, Ger­many and the EU’s newer east­ern mem­bers. Bor­der­ing eight coun­tries, it lives off tourism, agri­cul­ture and, most im­por­tantly, sell­ing goods abroad. Like Ger­many, the Alpine na­tion of 8.7 mil­lion peo­ple boasts a raft of world-beat­ing ex­porters. Glock guns, Novo­matic gam­ing ma­chines and en­ergy drink Red Bull are all Aus­trian, as is mo­tor­bike maker KTM.

“Aus­tria is one of the big­gest win­ners of the EU, the euro and EU en­large­ment,” KTM’s chief ex­ec­u­tive Ste­fan Pierer said. Some 98 per­cent of KTM’s prod­ucts-the firm has an al­liance with In­dia’s Ba­jaj Auto-are ex­ported, half to out­side the EU.

But cracks in the Aus­trian model are be­gin­ning to show. Work­ing hours are too rigid, non-wage labour costs are too high and the bu­reau­cracy dizzy­ing, Pierer com­plains.

“It’s aw­ful, de­mor­al­is­ing,” he told AFP. Aus­tria’s com­pet­i­tive­ness rank­ings are far from glow­ing and in­vest­ment is mostly just to keep things tick­ing over, not for the fu­ture.

“Out of ev­ery 10 eu­ros in­vested, eight go into ren­o­vat­ing ex­ist­ing plants and only two into new projects,” said Franz Schell­horn from think-tank Agenda Aus­tria. Chris­tian Kern, who spent 20 years in in­dus­try be­fore be­com­ing Aus­tria’s cen­tre-left chan­cel­lor in June, says he is aware that life has got harder.

But his prom­ises to jump­start the un­happy “grand coali­tion” with the cen­tre-right and launch a “New Deal” pack­age of re­forms have so far dis­ap­pointed, crit­ics say.

Jobs for Aus­tri­ans

Nonethe­less Schell­horn stresses that by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, Aus­tri­ans live well. Growth has picked up and unem­ploy­ment fallen this year. The govern­ment has cut some taxes.

“Peo­ple have in fact never had it so good,” Schell­horn told AFP. “But there is a feel­ing that things are get­ting worse.” Just 23 per­cent of Aus­tri­ans are op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture, a re­cent Imas sur­vey showed. Like pop­ulists else­where, the Free­dom Party (FPOe) has tapped into this pes­simism.

It por­trays it­self as be­ing on the side of or­di­nary Aus­trian work­ers against jobs-killing im­mi­gra­tion and glob­al­iza­tion. “Aus­trian jobs should first be for Aus­tri­ans, not for EU for­eign­ers and def­i­nitely not for the many eco­nomic mi­grants,” the FPOe’s pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Nor­bert Hofer says.

The op­po­si­tion party’s eco­nomic poli­cies-slash taxes, splurge on in­fra­struc­ture-strongly re­sem­ble those of US pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump. While this might boost growth, like Trump the FPOe is sus­pi­cious of trade deals and it is am­biva­lent about the EU, par­tic­u­larly the free move­ment of labour.

The mes­sage is bear­ing fruit in the race for the largely cer­e­mo­nial pres­i­dency, with Hofer neck-and-neck in polls with the in­de­pen­dent Alexan­der Van der Bellen. Van der Bellen, a staunchly pro-EU eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor, also be­moans the lack of re­forms. But Hofer de­picts him as be­ing from the same out-of-touch elite as the govern­ment. —AFP

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