May 10, 2016
The decline of Social Democracy - Austrian edition
There is something depressing about the decline of social democracy in Europe. It is not so much that they are losing popular support, but that they are running out of ideas and are becoming rather small-minded. This is the common theme of our two main stories today - the resignation of Werner Faymann as Austria chancellor, and Sigmar Gabriel's preconditions for another grand coalition, which he now seems to be preparing for.
Faymann resignation yesterday was not entirely shocking. The pressure on him has grown since the disastrous first round in the presidential election where his candidate scored a disappointing 10%. The resignation happened as the mayor of Vienna, Michael Haupl, the true powerbroker in the SPÖ withdrew his support. Faymann has been presiding over a long period of decline - the SPÖ has lost 18 elections since he became chancellor. The party will appoint a new leader within the next eight days. It is possible that it may separate the position of party leader and chancellor, so that the party can have a separate identity from the policies of the government. The Austrian press names two people as potential candidates for Faymann's success - all managers. One of them is the head of the Austrian railway company, Christian Kern, who has no direct political experience. He is favoured because of the way he has managed the company. The other one is Gerhard Zeiler, a media manager who is now head of Turner Broadcasting in London.
In a comment in Der Standard Alexandra Föderl-Schmid makes the point that there is a case to separate the functions. The governments needs a manager at the top to undertake much needed economic reforms, as the country is losing international competitiveness, and as unemployment is reaching historically high levels. A chancellor with business experience might provide such leadership. The party, however, needs a leader who is capable of providing a new direction. We are not entirely sure about her conclusions. But she seems to indicate that this could or should include opening up the party to an eventual coalition with the FPÖ, the right-wing populist party that came out top in the first presidential election round.
What we found profoundly depressing is the way the Austrian media discussed the pros and cons of the various candidates. In its main story, Der Standard notes that notes that Zeiler is ten years older than Kern. And as such he has much less to lose in terms of his own career development if he took over the job of chancellor, which the paper describes as a suicide mission. Whereas the 50-year Kern might be too young for such a desperate career move.
FAZ notes that the most astonishing accomplishment of Werner Faymann was his ability to become the second longest serving member of the European Council - after Angela Merkel. It recalls an incident when a journalist from Austrian TV discovered that Faymann faked his CV, by claiming law studies even though he did not complete a single semester. And when the FPÖ raised the question of where he managed to gain his high school diploma, he refused to answer.
The idea of separating the jobs of head of the party and head of the government is too clever by half. The German SPD tried that during the Schmidt and later Schroder areas with bad electoral results. Schmidt was never SPD leader and regretted this because the separation in the end meant that the party failed to support the chancellor. There is no technical fix to a political problem.