The Sudden Greening of Red-White-Red

                                                             The Austrian Parliament Building in Vienna [frantic00/Getty Images]
Austria has a new government. While the country is still grappling with the legacies of the previous administration, Sebastian Kurz and Werner Kogler, the leaders of the conservative ÖVP and the Green Party, respectively, sealed the deal on their unequal marriage to guide the nation into a new decade. Their coalition agreement going by the name of “Out of Responsibility for Austria” reads like a 326-page appraisal of the lowest common denominators between the two parties, much like the joint statement of chancellor and vice-chancellor in front of the press after the conclusion of negotiations. Last Tuesday, the new government was sworn into office. The functioning of this experimental partnership will prove decisive in reestablishing trust in Austria’s scandal-ridden political system.

The long shadow of Ibiza

May 17, 2019. A videotape surfaces, secretly filmed in a villa on Ibiza. It shows then-vice chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache, his party ally Johann Gudenus, and the alleged niece of a Russian oligarch mooting the possibility of electoral support in exchange for government contracts. “Ibiza-gate” blew up the coalition between Conservatives and the Freedom Party, while unexpectedly putting Dutch Eurodance group Vengaboys and their song “We’re going to Ibiza” back on the map. The ensuing affairs, although much less present in the foreign press, were equally revealing of the opaque, yet ludicrous workings of Austrian politics. Shortly after the release of the tape, an employee of chancellor Kurz was charged with destroying government hard drives using a false name. He forgot to pay the commissioned firm but was later identified on TV by one of the company’s employees, standing behind the chancellor at a public event. “The shreddering of hard drives is a normal procedure through and through”, Kurz stated shortly after. Whereas this is certainly true, the timing and overall secretive conduct of the protagonists leave a big question mark.

But an even more revealing incident became public in the aftermath of Ibiza. Peter Sidlo, a close ally of Strache, had obtained a position as the new chief financial officer of gaming corporation Casinos Austria in March 2019 – despite having little to no relevant previous experience. This was largely interpreted as a political deal, granting the Freedom Party influence in the corporation’s supervisory board in exchange for a loosening of the legal restrictions on gambling. The supposed main beneficiary of such a legal amendment? Gambling multinational Novomatic, whose department of corporate responsibility and sustainability is, on a side note, headed by Eva Glawischnig, party head of the Greens until 2018. Clearly, the enmeshment of money and politics is nothing new, even in self-proclaimed liberal democracies.  Yet, these episodes demonstrate how deeply ingrained cronyism is in the country’s political DNA.

Protecting borders, protecting the climate

Forward to the end of the past year. Snap elections in September see the Conservatives consolidate their leading position with 37,46% of the vote, largely at the expense of the disgraced FPÖ. The Social Democrats (SPÖ) lose a significant share to the Greens and help the latter re-enter into Parliament. With the FPÖ needing time to lick its wounds and negotiations with the SPÖ failing after brief negotiations, Sebastian Kurz is unexpectedly left with no one else than the Greens to provide him with a parliamentary majority. Since the first attempt to form an eco-conservative government had failed in 2003, the Greens smell the historic opportunity, notwithstanding the critics in their own ranks. After six weeks of cumbersome negotiations, the two party leaders presented their program just before the end of the year. But what is sold to the public as comprising “the best of both worlds” is, in fact, nothing but a mere continuation of Kurz’ neoconservative policies coated in green. Accordingly, the coalition agreement contains many of the elements that figured prominently in the previous government’s agenda: the fight against political Islam, a general ban on hijabs at school for girls up to the age of 14, and the meritocratic tenet “integration through performance”. While some of these proposals may partly be justified, they reveal not only the ÖVP’s propensity for symbolic politics but also a skewed understanding of religion’s role in education and society more generally. Crucifixes are still mandatory in classrooms and religious instruction is obligatory, with ethics lessons being held only for students with no religious denomination. Not to speak of the numerous other points bearing a turquoise signature, such as a legally highly doubtful mechanism of preventive detention for “dangerous suspects.”

Yet, green handwriting is clearly recognizable: a commitment to the Paris Agreement, subsidies for electromobility companies, a shift from fossil fuels to renewables in the energy sector, and full climate neutrality by 2040 are among the goals set out in the program. How these changes will be financed remains largely unclear though: an “appropriate framework” will generate incentives for private capital, and “ecological and ethical investments” shall be exempt from capital gains tax. Neoliberal economics and ecological promises seem to fuse seamlessly into a new form of eco-capitalism, whereas the proposed measures in the fields of social security, income equality and welfare can at best be interpreted as concessions to a program otherwise devoid of social ideas.

Commentators have also pointed to the fact that with a mean age of 46 years and nine out of 17 members being women, the new government is the youngest ever sworn into office while at the same time having the highest number of female ministers and state secretaries in the country’s history. Undoubtedly, this is a positive development. But with key portfolios like the Interior, Foreign Affairs, Education and Finance Ministries in the hands of the ÖVP, there is not much room to set accents for the team around vice-chancellor Kogler, even with the somewhat important Ministry of Justice and the “Super-Ministry” for Environment and Infrastructure in their hands.

A model for Europe?

Two-party coalitions between conservative and green parties already exist on a state level in both Austria (Tyrol and Vorarlberg) and Germany (Hesse and Baden-Wuerttemberg) – even more if three-party coalitions are taken into account – and green parties are currently to be found in the federal governments of Sweden, Finland, Austria, and Luxemburg. Yet, the Austrian model of an eco-conservative federal coalition is a European premiere, with Germany having had a long-time flirt with the idea. One thing is for sure: it is a welcome change from the decade-long standstill of great coalitions, interspersed with two rather calamitous episodes of center-right alliances, and may prove to have stimulating effects on political discourse. With an ever waning significance of social democracy across a large share of Western European countries and Greens finding their way into the political mainstream, it remains to be seen whether this alliance has the potential to become a blueprint for other European governments – or rests nothing more than a green fig leaf for Sebastian Kurz’ Machiavellian ambitions.

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