Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Big Three in the Austrian Chancellor's race

On Friday, I had the chance to attend the "Big Three" debate between the three leading candidates for Austrian Chancellor in the election of October 15 in the Design Center in Linz. It was sponsored by the leading state/provincial newspapers, including Die Presse (Vienna) and the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten (Upper Austria). The video of the debate in German is available online at the Kleine Zeitung and at Bei Steuerplänen schieden sich die Geister, Lucian Mayringer et al, Oberösterreichische Nachrichten 15.09.2017. (The sound on both is low for the first few minutes.)

Austria has a parliamentary system, with the President elected as head of state in a separate election from the Parliament. The head of government is the Chancellor, whose function is called Prime Minister in some other countries, and is typically elected by a majority in Parliament, which often requires a formal agreement between two or more political parties. Since 1987, the government has mostly been composed of some combination of the center-left Socialdemokratisched Partei (SPÖ) and the center-right Christian-Democratic Volkspartei (ÖVP). The third-largest party is the Freiheitliche Partei (FPÖ), which we could (generously) describe as far right.

The Big Three (l to r): Sebastian Kurz, Christian Kern, HC Strache

In this campaign, the current Chancellor Christian Kern is candidate for the SPÖ, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz for the ÖVP, and Heinz-Christian Strache for the FPÖ. Technically, Kurz is running on the Sebastian Kurz List, but that's basically just a marketing ploy. Kurz is currently the leading candidate in the polls, and is trying to maximize the potential advantage of looking as he does 16 years old and to emphasize that he's a new and fresh leader. Actually, at 31, he's almost twice as old as he looks.

It was a relatively civilized debate, which the press commentary reflected. Here is one way in which an American has to remember that Austria is different from the US. In Austria, it's not considered normal for a candidate to, for instance, demand that their opponent be locked up. Or to complain that female reporters menstruate. But politics is inevitably about conflicts, so not everything was harmonious at the debate.

The topics included education, taxes, digitalization and employment, the budget, pensions, and immigration. But immigration and the status of non-citizens in Austria - a topic on which I don't pretend to be a disinterred party - was the main theme, thanks in particular to Kurz. Prior to 2015, xenophobia was mainly pushed by the FPÖ. For instance, in 1993 the FPÖ used an anti-foreigner referendum campaign to exploit nationalist and xenophobic sentiment. They called their campaign "Austria First." And in a fashion now all-too-familiar to Americans in our own politics, the FPÖ has consistently encouraged and maintained visible links to hardcore anti-democratic rightwing groups, some of which constantly flirt with neo-Nazi propaganda, the latter being illegal in Austria under the terms of the Independence Treaty of 1955 with the US, the then-USSR, Britain and France.

But Kurz has made the anti-immigrant theme his own. In Friday's debate, Kurz introduced an anti-Islam meme into a discussion of education ("Islamic kindergartens"). And he and Strache competed in beating the anti-foreign drums. Problems in the education system? According to Kurz and Strache, the only real problem there is that there are too many g*******d foreign children in Austria. Budget problems? Also because there are too many g*******d foreign children in Austria. Since current American levels of crassness aren't yet respectable in Austrian politics, they didn't actually use the cuss word.

Kurz claimed the low point for the day when he complained that there are too many Africans in Africa and they are still breeding more. Seriously! Maybe he was thinking that white South Africans have too high a birth rate. But I'm guessing not. It's a notable accomplishment for the leader of the ÖVP to come out of a face-to-face confrontation with Strache sounding like the more xenophobic of the two.

I was surprised that the word "terrorism" never came up in the debate, because Kurz and Strache have typically linked their hostility to foreigners with security questions. It was especially surprising because of the current report on Friday of what could have been an attempted terrorist attack in London.

But for me it was grim to hear with what a complete lack of compassion and realism the three candidate discussed the issue of refugees. All the three parties including the SPÖ have stressed the need to keep refugees out. Kern did introduce a bit of realism into Friday's discussion by talking about the real problems of war, climate change and economic crisis in the Middle East and North Africa. But it was discussed all but exclusively in terms of keeping the foreigners out of Austria.

I wouldn't want to minimize the seriousness of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, which is far from over. On the contrary, it's a chronic problem that the EU is currently handling with the "extend-and-pretend" approach which has been the dominant characteristic of Angela Merkel's approach to both the euro crisis and the refugee crisis. The current perception of the crisis in Austria has been heavily influenced by the refugee surge in 2015, with chaotic scenes in the city of Salzburg and the town of Traiskirchen. Ferry Maier and Julia Ortner present some of the substantive issues on the handling of refugees in Austria, including the state of the national and state emergency services, in Willkommen in Österreich? (2017).

A not-especially-diverse pundit panel discuss the discussion afterwards

But the Big Three couldn't find much time to address those substantive issues on Friday. Instead what was mainly on display were the polemical techniques the xenophobes have used to transform the image of desperate people fleeing war and severe persecution into one of coddled foreigners getting special benefits that Austrians don't get. And specifically into an image of Austrians being threatened by the presence of foreign children. It's ugly stuff.

On the bright side, there wasn't much use of favorite Islamophobe buzzwords, except for "Islamic kindergartens." (There were no similar complaints in the debate about Catholic kindergartens, of which Austria has plenty.)

On the other issues, the most substantive point was made by Chancellor Kern on tax policy, when he stressed that tax cuts, which all three are advocating, should be targeted to lower and medium income earners, not to corporations or the wealthy. And he stressed - accurately - that the Kurz and Strache proposals would most benefit the latter. None of the three wanted to be very specific about what program cuts would accompany their tax cuts. No one even mentioned the issues a large tax cut might cause for Austria under the terms of the eurozone Fiscal Suicide Pact, officially the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union, better known as the Stability Pact.

Kern and Strache were agreed in opposing the increase of the retirement age, which Kurz supports.

But on other entries, all three generally took seemingly safe, stock, anodyne positions on most issues. All three are in favor of good education. They all favor increasing government efficiency. All three are committed to the TINA (There Is No Alternative) Angela Merkel/Herbert Hoover economic policies that are currently dominant in the EU. A symptom of the latter is that all three used "education" as a magic conjuring word that would solve all economic problems. And, if it doesn't, well, it's your own fault for making those infamous Bad Choices. Along with the usual fantasies about unemployed workers in their mid-50s retraining for new and better jobs.

The discussion was moderated by Wolfgang Braun of the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten and Claudia Gigler of the Kleine Zeitung. Gigler was the only female journalist with a role in the discussion. Afterwards, there was a half hour discussion of the event by six commentators, all of them white guys. There was some diversity there, though. At least one of the six on the pundit panel was probably younger than 50.

Like their American counterparts, the journalist panel was particularly interested in the horse race speculation. Who will get the biggest vote? And what kind of party coalition could then be built? On that score, it was pretty obvious that Kurz and Strache were campaigning for an ÖVP/FPÖ coalition. That probably contributed to Strache's relatively restrained conduct in the appearance, which is not always his approach.

It struck me early on that Strache was the most experienced politician of the three. He was quicker on his comebacks and easily employed humor. Kern sounds like a Chancellor, which he is. But a glad-handing politician, not so much. I would agree, though, with the commentators who noted that Kern's performance could enhance his credibility at governance. That is, for the voters for whom that's important. Kurz comes off like a well-spoken teenaged conservative twit who thinks there are too many Africans in Africa.

For an American used to the tiresome rituals of our own TV Pod Pundits, it's refreshing to see journalists actually act like journalists and pressing politicians to respond to their questions and not just letting them repeat their preferred talking points. Braun and Gigler did a good job of that during the main event. What was missing, though, was some much needed fact-checking. Strache, for instance, ranted at one point about hundreds of millions of euros being paid to support non-existent children. Which would be a suspect claim even it weren't coming from someone like Strache, who lies like breathing on topics like this. Kern then ridiculed Strache's claim with a more credible-sounding number about the entire cost of the program in question. But neither Braun nor Gigler offered any kind of fact-checking on the topic, which would have really been helpful. Especially since Strache's claim is a popular xenophobic talking point right now. In his mini-rant about there too many Africans in Africa, Kurz also used population growth rate predictions that were fantasy nonsense, which also could have used a real time fact-check from the reporters. (Not that his point had anything to do with mastering demographic forecasts.)

A final cross-cultural observation: The Chancellor's debate included no discussion about whether Austria should nuke North Korea. Or start a war with Iran. Or send more troops to ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Comparatively speaking, from an American viewpoint Austria has a much preferable set of problems to wrestle with.

Press reports:

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