The Con­sen­sus Ma­chine

From Pro­porz to Ver­haberung, par­tic­i­pa­tion and in­flu­ence in Aus­tria go far be­yond the walls of Par­lia­ment to find an “Aus­trian so­lu­tion”

METROPOLE - Vienna in English - - CONTENTS - By Mar­garet Childs & Ben­jamin Wolf

From Pro­porz to Ver­haberung, par­tic­i­pa­tion and in­flu­ence in Aus­tria go far be­yond the walls of Par­lia­ment. Seem­ingly rocked by pop­ulism, the Aus­trian model of democ­racy is prov­ing it­self to be re­mark­ably re­silient and adapt­able.

“We just moved in,” she said, ush­er­ing me into the freshly-painted head­quar­ters of Aus­tria’s youngest po­lit­i­cal party, Liste Pilz. Un­der­neath a wild head of curls and bub­bly en­thu­si­asm, Stephanie Cox is just as new to the game. “I was ac­tu­ally plan­ning to move to Berlin when I got the call.” Her first re­ac­tion was to de­cline. But, it wasn’t long be­fore she be­came in­spired by the role she could play. “I had the priv­i­lege to grow up in sur­round­ings with plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties, and I still had to fight, ” she said with a nod. Her par­ents were al­ways be­hind her con­vic­tions, but she had to make her own way. When she got this chance, she de­cided, “I can’t wait 10 years for the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem to change.” Par­lia­men­tary rookie Cox, who en­tered pol­i­tics af­ter half a decade in the startup scene and launch­ing the refugee job fair Chan­cen­re­ich, isn’t put off by her own lack of ex­pe­ri­ence. “It’s like a startup,” Cox grinned. Of course Cox isn’t ex­actly typ­i­cal. On many lev­els Aus­trian pol­i­tics be­haves much more like a le­gacy com­pany com­ing to grips with chang­ing cir­cum­stances. Form­ing a coali­tion in a par­lia­men­tary democ­racy with two es­tab­lish­ment par­ties and three in the op­po­si­tion is com­pli­cated, and cre­at­ing the Liste Pilz is still a work in progress. Af­ter step­ping down fol­low­ing anony­mous al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment, party leader Peter Pilz an­nounced in Jan­uary that he will re-join the party and change its name – sug­gest­ing an in­fant party that has not yet learned to sit up straight, much less walk the talk. In re­cent his­tory, the coun­try has seen pop­ulist par­ties come and go, leav­ing be­hind a strong op­po­si­tion and re­jec­tion of ex­trem­ist pol­i­tics. But, the anger and shock is there, says Wolf­gang Zinggl, for­mer Green-party MP and now with Liste Pilz. “In 2000, we had this sit­u­a­tion and it was pretty hairy and peo­ple were afraid. There were protest marches as new laws were passed, but even­tu­ally the pen­du­lum swung back.” Wait and see. The pol­i­tics will fig­ure it­self out.


Fol­low­ing Aus­tria’s 2017 elec­tions, in­ter­na­tional me­dia re­sponded with alarm: Head­lines ranged from “Aus­tria Shifts Right” to “The Far Right Is Now in Power in Aus­tria”. In­side the coun­try, the re­ac­tion was a bit dif­fer­ent. While the Twit­ter­sphere erupted in calls to ac­tion and opin­ion pieces spec­u­lated on de­vel­op­ments in the years to come, the gov­ern­ment re­treated to dis­trib­ute min­istries and ne­go­ti­ate the terms of the coali­tion. Now, as the first state­ments are be­ing re­leased, the first press con­fer­ences

held by min­is­ters, the first in­ter­views given, it feels like a state of limbo. But it also seems markedly dif­fer­ent from 1999/2000, when the first ÖVP-FPÖ gov­ern­ment was formed: On Helden­platz, 150,000 gath­ered that Fe­bru­ary in protest and the Euro­pean Union re­acted with in­for­mal sanc­tions. “With pop­ulist and right-wing par­ties gain­ing strength all across Europe, this time the shock about Aus­tria’s new gov­ern­ment is muted at best,” says Fer­di­nand Karl­hofer, pro­fes­sor for po­lit­i­cal science at the Univer­sity of Inns­bruck. Per­haps peo­ple feel re­as­sured that just one year ago, a healthy ma­jor­ity of Aus­tri­ans elected Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Van der Bellen, the first and only Euro­pean head of state with a Green party back­ground.


“In a way, it is a nor­mal­iza­tion of the Aus­trian po­lit­i­cal land­scape,” Karl­hofer sug­gests. “In­stead of ‘two and a half party sys­tem’ that set Aus­tria apart for decades, we’ve now got a di­ver­si­fied party sys­tem with a strong pop­ulist tilt, just like many other Euro­pean coun­tries.” In­deed, many fea­tures of the old sys­tem re­main in place, ones that turned Aus­tria into a model so­cial democ­racy and a bea­con of free­dom and pros­per­ity af­ter 1945. In the em­bat­tled First Repub­lic (1918-34), So­cial­ists and Chris­tian Democrats strug­gled over the Aus­trian soul – be­tween qual­ity of (sec­u­lar) life for the work­ing class and what the right con­sid­ered a deeper iden­tity in church and na­tion – be­fore they skid­ded into a civil war in 1934. With the ban­ning of the So­cial­ist Party, Aus­trian democ­racy was de­stroyed for a decade, with four years of Aus­tro­fas­cism and seven of Na­tional So­cial­ism, fol­low­ing the Anschluss to Hitler’s Ger­many in 1938. It was these trau­mas that in­spired the Aus­trian’s unique model of Sozial­part­ner­schaft (So­cial Part­ner­ship), which brings to­gether rep­re­sen­ta­tives of busi­nesses, work­ers and politi­cians to agree on mu­tu­ally ac­cept­able terms be­fore new laws are drafted. “This model of ‘Aus­tro Cor­po­ratism’ was even a role model on the Euro­pean level in the 1990s, when a so­cial di­a­logue was es­tab­lished,” Karl­hofer says, even though the al­lure re­ceded in the en­su­ing decades of glob­al­iza­tion and in­ter­na­tion­al­iza­tion. For Aus­tria, how­ever, the model is still vi­tal. The core of the Sozial­part­ner­schaft con­tains no fewer than 16 Kam­mern (cham­bers) that rep­re­sent dif­fer­ent groups and stake­hold­ers in so­ci­ety. From spe­cial­ized, like the Ärztekam­mer (cham­ber for doc­tors), to the three ma­jor ones – the Land­wirtschaft­skam­mer (Agri­cul­tural Cham­ber), the Wirtschaft­skam­mer (Cham­ber of Com­merce) and the Ar­beit­erkam­mer (Work­ers’ Cham­ber) – they are all tightly wo­ven into the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. Busi­nesses, em­ploy­ees, in­de­pen­dent pro­fes­sion­als and many oth­ers are au­to­mat­i­cally mem­bers and fund the or­ga­ni­za­tions with mod­est an­nual dues. In re­turn, the cham­bers of­fer their ex­per­tise and ad­vo­cacy free to mem­bers, but also pull their weight in shap­ing na­tional pol­icy. Gov­ern­ments ap­proach the Sozial­part­ner reg­u­larly with an is­sue and re­ceive a sug­gested tem­plate for a new law. Re­gard­less of the party in power, find­ing a con­sen­sus is para­mount – and achieved sur­pris­ingly of­ten. Aus­tria be­came known for its ex­cel­lent in­dus­try-la­bor re­la­tions and strike rates – along with Switzer­land and Ja­pan – the low­est in the world.


The two main par­ties that dom­i­nated both elec­tions and the cham­bers for decades af­ter 1945 had a ma­jor role in this suc­cess­ful model. “Un­til the 1990s, the SPÖ and the

“I al­ways had to fight. One day I de­cided, I can’t wait 10 years for the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem to change.” Stephanie Cox, En­tre­pre­neur & Ac­tivist, now MP with Liste Pilz

ÖVP al­ways had 80-90% of the votes be­tween them,” Karl­hofer points out. And for most of the time, they gov­erned to­gether in a Grand Coali­tion – 44 years out of 72 years – or alone (the ÖVP un­der Klaus from 1966 to 1970, the SPÖ un­der Kreisky from 1970 to 1983). Hannes An­drosch, Aus­trian Fi­nance Min­is­ter un­der Kreisky is adamant about the ben­e­fits of this ar­range­ment. “The Grand Coali­tion was – with all its flaws –the best thing that could have hap­pened to our coun­try af­ter World War II.” In many Aus­trian Bun­deslän­der (fed­eral states), the sys­tem of Pro­porz (pro­por­tional dis­tri­bu­tion of po­si­tions) even fore­saw that re­gional gov­ern­ment should re­flect elec­tion re­sults, thus giv­ing the par­ties a per­ma­nent stake in rul­ing. Sim­i­larly, your chances for a pub­lic sec­tor job – and there were many of those in Aus­tria with its na­tion­al­ized in­dus­try, its gov­ern­ment-con­trolled health care and school sys­tems as well as pub­lic hous­ing – were im­mea­sur­ably higher when you had a party book. Al­most ev­ery hos­pi­tal, for in­stance used to have two di­rec­tors, one “red” (so­cial-demo­cratic) and one “black” (con­ser­va­tive), a pat­tern re­peated through­out the hi­er­ar­chy. Rail­ing against this sys­tem was one of the strong­est draws of the FPÖ, es­pe­cially dur­ing the Jörg Haider years.


Aus­tria’s rates of party mem­ber­ships per capita ri­val those of China and are by far the high­est num­ber in all of Europe, even in coun­tries far larger. In fact, the ÖVP is the big­gest Euro­pean party by mem­ber­ship – its 600,000 mem­bers dwarf the Ger­man CDU’S 430,000. The SPÖ, with more than 200,000 mem­bers, eas­ily bests the Bri­tish To­ries’ 150,000 and that’s with­out tak­ing into ac­count the more than 300,000 mem­bers of the tightly party-af­fil­i­ated Aus­trian Pen­sioner’s As­so­ci­a­tion. Even the Bri­tish Labour, which af­ter its re­cent surge to 570,000 claims to be the largest po­lit­i­cal party in Europe, is no match for Aus­tria’s Chris­tian Democrats. Mind you, Aus­tria has a mere 8.7 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants to Ger­many’s 82.8 mil­lion and Bri­tain’s 65.6 mil­lion, so per­haps it’s not sur­pris­ing that the coun­try tries to gov­ern by con­sen­sus – lit­er­ally ev­ery­body has a very con­crete stake and a bit of lever­age in the whole process. In a last hur­rah for this old con­sen­sual model, the cham­bers’ role in the Sozial­part­ner­schaft was en­shrined in con­sti­tu­tional law in 2008 (as öf­fentliche Kör­per­schaften). The new gov­ern­ment has now set its eyes on the Ar­beit­erkam­mer (AK, Work­ers’ Cham­ber), tra­di­tion­ally dom­i­nated by the now op­po­si­tion So­cial Democrats, but will have a strug­gle to ef­fect mas­sive changes with­out the con­sti­tu­tional ma­jor­ity it lacks. “Let’s see if they will re­ally go there,” says Karl­hofer, re­call­ing a sim­i­lar foray in 2003 to lower the fixed AK con­tri­bu­tions from 0.5% to 0.3% of an em­ployee’s salary. “It didn’t fly back then, and it will also be con­tro­ver­sial this time around. The gov­ern­ment will think twice be­fore tak­ing on this fight.” This al­ludes to another fea­ture of the Aus­trian po­lit­i­cal sys­tem and, in fact, Aus­trian so­ci­ety, that still holds true, in spite of all re­cent changes. Aus­tri­ans long for sta­bil­ity, that ev­ery­body sich verträgt (gets along well) and they ab­hor open con­flict and rad­i­cal change. While this some­times gets in the way of a proper de­bate – the na­tion’s pop­u­lar TV an­chor­man Ar­min Wolf is of­ten re­proached for be­ing too “bossy” with politi­cians and sup­pos­edly “rudely” in­ter­rupt­ing them too of­ten – it also en­sures that politi­cians can­not score points with di­vi­sive poli­cies once in power. Even the FPÖ, the fire­brand par ex­cel­lence in elec­tion cam­paigns, quickly tones down its rhetoric and pro­pos­als once in gov­ern­ment (de­spite the reg­u­lar gaffe, like the FPÖ Her­bert Kickl’s, be­low). Po­lit­i­cal man­i­festos are not just en­acted uni­lat­er­ally. In­stead, politi­cians or the Sozial­part­ner float ideas that are then dis­cussed and dis­sected on the Stammtis­che (reg­u­lars’ ta­bles) of the na­tion and of­ten rewrit­ten, amended or re­tracted. It is of­ten pol­i­tics by tec­ton­ics, lis­ten­ing to the lit­tle shifts in the pub­lic mood or the count­less voices mak­ing them­selves heard in the vast ap­pa­ra­tus of cham­bers, or­ga­ni­za­tions or re­gional party groups in the Bun­deslän­der. The re­sult is that rad­i­cal pro­pos­als, even if some­times touted by politi­cians, rarely get en­acted. In­stead, the Aus­trian con­sen­sus model steers poli­cies to the mu­tu­ally ac­cepted cen­ter ground on most is­sues. So it’s no

coin­ci­dence, for ex­am­ple, that the ÖVP in the 1980s cam­paigned on the prom­ise to “bring the ship of state into bal­ance” dur­ing the years of Kreisky’s Spö-ma­jor­ity rule.


There’s an Aus­trian word that goes hand-in­hand with the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Aus­trian me­dia and pol­i­tics: “Ver­haberung”. Es­sen­tially, the word comes from “Haberer” which means a buddy (or less flat­ter­ingly, a hench­man) and it im­plies that jour­nal­ists or en­tire me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tions are in bed with cer­tain po­lit­i­cal par­ties and politi­cians. This is no se­cret. The re­la­tion­ships be­tween jour­nal­ists and politi­cians can be com­pli­cated, as Hans Rauscher wrote in a opin­ion piece in Der Stan­dard last Septem­ber. “It’s cer­tainly the case that the pro­fes­sional con­tact be­tween politi­cians and jour­nal­ists can de­velop into half-per­sonal con­tact (…) For pro­fes­sional and eth­i­cally sound jour­nal­ists, it should not be a prob­lem to dif­fer­en­ti­ate, if need be.” This is­sue has col­ored Aus­trian po­lit­i­cal cov­er­age for decades. Con­sid­er­ing the size of the coun­try, it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble to avoid such con­nec­tions, and cor­rect­ing for bias an essen­tial pro­fes­sional dis­ci­pline. Still, a 2010 re­port, “Po­lit­i­cal Jour­nal­ism in Aus­tria”, found that 73% per­cent of the jour­nal­ists in­ter­viewed felt that the lack of dis­tance was prob­lem­atic. On an in­sti­tu­tional level, the af­fil­i­a­tions be­tween me­dia com­pa­nies and po­lit­i­cal par­ties are open, and taken as a mat­ter of course. The big­gest own­ers of me­dia are not just peo­ple like Christoph Dic­hand (Kro­nen Zeitung, Heute), and Wolf­gang Fell­ner’s fam­ily (Öster­re­ich), but also Raif­feisen Bank (Kurier, NÖN), and the Catholic Church (Styria Me­dia Group, NÖN) (see graphic, above). But it’s not sim­ply the po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions of the own­ers that de­fine the re­la­tion­ships be­tween me­dia and gov­ern­ment. Wolf­gang Zinggl of the Liste Pilz says it’s im­por­tant to dif­fer­en­ti­ate from medium to medium. “The Kro­nen Zeitung is, and has long been, a mighty clan, which is closely con­nected to Heute. To­gether they are an enor­mous force when it comes to power and read­er­ship and dic­tat­ing pol­icy.” He ex­plained that politi­cians of­ten are afraid of this power. “This fear and the amount of ad­ver­tise­ments booked in these pa­pers are linked.” Politi­cians hope these ads will trans­late into be­ing fea­tured pos­i­tively in ed­i­to­rial cov­er­age. Es­pe­cially when elec­tions come up, politi­cians at the top en­counter this dilemma, ex­plained Zinggl. They have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to the pub­lic. “So they agree with the Kro­nen Zeitung un­til they get rep­ri­manded

“The Kro­nen Zeitung and Heute are an enor­mous force when it comes to power and dic­tat­ing pol­icy.” Wolf­gang Zinggl, For­mer Green Party MP and now with the new Liste Pilz

by their vot­ers.” This back and forth goes on, he says, be­cause the Kro­nen Zeitung is not tied to any par­tic­u­lar party. They’re af­ter read­er­ship and clicks. “They are a busi­ness.” Dur­ing the cam­paign, af­ter Fell­ner’s free daily Öster­re­ich pub­lished an in­ter­nal SPÖ dossier, Kern said he’d stop cam­paign ad­ver­tis­ing in the news­pa­per and de­clined to be in­ter­viewed on Fell­ner’s TV sta­tion OE24, with the words “there are lim­its.” Fell­ner de­fended the choice to pub­lish the dossier say­ing it was his “jour­nal­is­tic duty.” Promptly there­after Öster­re­ich pub­lished a pic­ture of Chan­cel­lor Kern in a princess cos­tume, call­ing him a “Mi­mose” or wimp. The re­sult of this very pub­lic tiff was a steep drop in polling num­bers for the chan­cel­lor and per­haps, in the end, his loss of the elec­tion. A source close to the gov­ern­ment and me­dia ex­plained, “Kern shouldn’t have done that. It’s just not how things work. Fell­ner is a guy you can talk to.” In the tra­di­tion of Ver­haberung, dis­agree­ments should be re­solved among friends.


But Aus­trian pol­i­tics hap­pens in many places, not just in Par­lia­ment. With the re­cent shifts in pub­lic mood, the cards are far from dealt. The par­ties are repo­si­tion­ing: With the Greens out of Par­lia­ment and the new Liste Pilz in, with both the in­te­rior and for­eign min­is­ters ap­pointed by the Free­dom Party, the pop­u­la­tion is poised to see how this con­stel­la­tion will play out. Re­gard­less of the spec­u­la­tion and il­lad­vised state­ments by gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials – like In­te­rior Min­is­ter Her­bert Kickl’s use of the word “con­cen­trated” when speak­ing about where refugees should be housed – the past few decades have shown that change sel­dom hap­pens quickly in Aus­tria. But ac­cord­ing to Wolf­gang Zinggl, the rea­son is that the par­ties don’t want to lose votes in the up­com­ing elec­tions in Lower Aus­tria, Ty­rol, Salzburg and Carinthia. “They have to be care­ful that they don’t lose po­ten­tial votes in the re­gional elec­tions by pass­ing dumb laws. They’ll lay low for a while, so the vot­ers will think “what’s ev­ery­body so worked up about.“Then, he says, there will be wave of un­com­fort­able laws, “be­cause that’s how the ÖVP’S op­er­ates. They are well-be­haved and noth­ing’s go­ing to hap­pen.” But he warns that re­stric­tions to the rights of for­eign­ers and some ne­olib­eral eco­nomic leg­is­la­tion are wait­ing in the wings. Then there is the FPÖ, he adds. Tra­di­tion­ally, they rely on strong state­ments, “on the lit­tle man who likes to be goschat (rowdy) and the peo­ple who say, ‘so, now we need to get the for­eign­ers out of here.’” He says they want things to be rad­i­cal, they want ac­tion, like in a bar brawl, “You’re a pig, I’m gonna hit you.” Zinggl doesn’t see a long fu­ture for the coali­tion. Part of the con­sen­sus ma­chine seems to be the pre­dictabil­ity of bad be­hav­ior. Since 1995, Aus­tria has been part of a big­ger union. An­drosch be­lieves that Aus­tria’s cur­rent eco­nomic sta­bil­ity is thanks to open bor­ders and new op­por­tu­ni­ties for trade. “In the era of glob­al­iza­tion, Aus­tria can only thrive as a part of Europe.”


Ev­ery month, the Mem­bers of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment (MEPS) travel to Stras­bourg for one week. En­ter­ing the build­ing on the Av­enue du Prési­dent Robert Schu­man, the di­ver­sity daz­zles you. The lan­guages you hear in the hall­ways, the faces you see and the food served in the cantina – ev­ery­thing from mozarrella Ital­iana to French baguette, Cen­tral Euro­pean pump­kin soup and Baltic fish stew. Glass fronts, wide cor­ri­dors and lush vines dom­i­nate the in­te­rior, as if to show that one is nur­tur­ing here, openly, the green shoots of Euro­pean con­cord and co­op­er­a­tion. The Aus­trian MEP Lukas Mandl, at 38 years the youngest of Aus­tria’s deputies to the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, ar­rived in De­cem­ber for his first ple­nary ses­sion. He fol­lowed in the foot­steps of the ÖVP’S Elis­a­beth Köstinger, who was ap­pointed Min­is­ter for Sus­tain­abil­ity and Tourism in the new coali­tion. On the Euro­pean level, Mandl will be a part of the Euro­pean Peo­ple’s Party (EPP) fac­tion. “For me, the Euro­pean Union is a su­per­power of peace,” he gushes. “Our ex­per­tise in fos­ter­ing rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, build­ing peace and sus­tain­ing it is unique world­wide – we should use this knowl­edge!” In the EP, Mandl will be a part of the Bos­nia-kosovo Di­a­logue, the Pe­ti­tion Com­mit­tee, the African Del­e­ga­tion and the Com­mit­tee for Health and En­vi­ron­ment. His broad dossier shows

Aus­tria’s leg­endary fed­eral Chan­cel­lor Bruno Kreisky (l.) pho­tographed with the later Pres­i­dent Heinz Fis­cher, who was then deputy head of the So­cial­ist Party (SPÖ).

Both houses of Par­lia­ment as­sem­bled in the Re­ich­sratssaal on Jan­uary 26, for the swear­ing in of the new Fed­eral Pres­i­dent Alexan­der Van der Bellen.

The ma­jes­tic Aus­trian Par­lia­ment build­ing was de­signed by Theophil von Hansen and com­pleted in 1883. Cur­rently un­der ren­o­va­tion, it is ex­pected to re­open in 2021.

Lukas Mandl, 38, is Aus­tria’s youngest MEP and an ad­vo­cate for per­son­al­iz­ing the elec­tion process.

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