Tag Archives: austria

Austrian center wins a hollow presidential victory

Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly defeated the far right in Austria's presidential election, but it might ultimately be a Phyrric victory. (Amélie Chapalain / Facebook)
Alexander Van der Bellen narrowly defeated the far right in Austria’s presidential election, but it might ultimately be a Pyrrhic victory. (Amélie Chapalain / Facebook)

It took the counting of around 750,000 postal votes on Monday to settle what had been a too-close-to-call runoff to determine who would win Austria’s (mostly ceremonial) presidency.austria flag

The winner, by a very narrow margin, is Alexander Van der Bellen, a 72-year-old professor and, nominally an independent, though formerly a parliamentary leader of the Die Grünen (Austrian Green Party), and you could almost hear the palpable sigh of relief from across the European Union as far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer conceded defeat.

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But it’s a hollow relief.

The result means that Austria’s hard right will not occupy the presidency and, therefore, will not be able to attempt to terminate the current government or try to wrest greater powers from Austria’s parliament. But given the tumult of the past month in Austrian politics, the hard right has clearly been emboldened by the presidential race, and it will now look to the next parliamentary elections to take real power.

The first-round, double-digit victory of Norbert Hofer, the 45-year-old candidate of the right-wing, anti-immigrant Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), stunned not only Austria, but all of Europe. It represents the closest than any far-right party has come to winning power at the national level in the European Union since the 1930s.

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RELATED: Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

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Its success shouldn’t have been surprising. The Freedom Party has increasingly gained on the country’s mainstream parties, and it nearly toppled state governments in regional elections last autumn.

Despite its defeat, the FPÖ has been able not only to undermine a sitting chancellor, but to force his resignation. After social democratic chancellor Werner Faymann initially welcomed refugees to Austria last summer, he abruptly reversed course under pressure from the Freedom Party and angry voters, instead co-opting the rhetoric and the policies of the far right, complete with border fences and anti-immigration crackdowns.

But the candidate of Faymann’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) finished in fourth place, and shortly after the first-round vote, the Social Democrats essentially forced Faymann to resign, bringing to an end an eight-year tenure leading a grand coalition government with the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party). For its part, the ÖVP presidential candidate placed an even more disappointing fifth.

Faymann, to his credit, ably led Austria through the 2008-09 global financial panic and the 2010 eurozone crisis, and Austria and its banking system, moreover, helped stave off a broader crisis in central Europe and the Balkans. Instead of leaving office, having made the noble case for welcoming refugees, he left power earlier this month after capitulating to the hard right. Continue reading Austrian center wins a hollow presidential victory

Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria's presidential election. (Facebook)
Far-right presidential candidate Norbert Hofer easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election. (Facebook)

On a day when Serbians reelected their pro-European government in landslide, the spotlight suddenly fell on Austria instead.austria flag

Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the anti-immigrant, far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria), easily won the first round of Austria’s presidential election, while the candidates of the two governing parties fell to fourth and fifth place.

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Hofer’s first-round lead of more than 10% shocked not only Vienna, but the entire European Union.

At age 45, Hofer is not nearly as well known as some of the Freedom Party’s top officials, including its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache. But his fresh-faced appeal might have improved the party’s chances, in contrast to one of the FPÖ’s more established figures. Austria has admitted more refugees, on a per-capita basis, than even Germany, and Hofer spent much of his campaign trashing Austria’s willingness to pay more into the European Union than it receives in return, stoking anger over bailouts to Greece and other member-state with crippling debt. Continue reading Far-right victory in Austrian presidential vote shocks Europe

Anti-migrant mood brings record win for Swiss People’s Party

Toni Brunner, the leader of the Swiss People's Party, will celebrate his party's best-ever result in October 18 elections. (Keystone)
Toni Brunner, the leader of the Swiss People’s Party, will celebrate his party’s best-ever result in October 18 elections. (Keystone)

Amid dual concerns about rising immigration and creeping concerns about the reach of the European Union’s writ in non-member Switzerland, today’s Swiss national elections are further evidence of a rightward shift that could complicate governance in a country with a long tradition of consensus-driven government.
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Though Switzerland hasn’t received the deluge of refugees as neighboring Austria and Germany, fears about the largest number of refugees arriving in Europe since World War II, boosted the anti-immigration, right-wing Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP, Swiss People’s Party), which won a record 65 seats in Switzerland’s 200-member Nationalrat (National Council), the lower house of the bicameral  Bern-based Bundesversammlung (Federal Assembly) — more seats than any other single party has won at any election since 1917. Those gains follow the successes of the far-right Freedom Party in two state elections in the past three weeks in neighboring Austria.

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When one party wins an election in Switzerland, it doesn’t mean that the party controls government. Instead, under the Swiss ‘concordance’ system, the four major parties of both left and right share membership on the Federal Council, a seven-member executive board that governs Switzerland and that is indirectly elected by the Federal Assembly. Historically, the Federal Council prides itself on collegiality and compromise. The Swiss presidency rotates annually among the seven members, though the presidential role is chiefly ceremonial. Furthermore, there’s no equivalent of a ‘prime minister,’ and the strong regional government of Switzerland’s 26 cantons means that executive power in the country has always been particularly weak, dating to the federal system agreed in 1848.

But Sunday’s result is prompting calls for a Rechtsrutsch — a move from a grand-coalition government to a more clearly right-leaning government on the basis of the SVP’s superior result.

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RELATED: Swiss immigration vote threatens access to EU single market

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Both houses of the Federal Assembly will determine the Federal Council’s composition in a secret ballot on December 9. The SVP’s rising strength means that it will take a much more aggressive stand toward shifting the Federal Council to the right, tightening Swiss policy on immigration and the European Union.

In addition to the National Council, Swiss voters were also electing all 46 members of the upper house, the Ständerat (Council of States). Continue reading Anti-migrant mood brings record win for Swiss People’s Party

Häupl holds off far-right threat in Vienna elections

Vienna's Social Democratic mayor, Michael Häupl, has held power since 1994. (Hans Punz/aPA)
Vienna’s Social Democratic mayor, Michael Häupl, has held power since 1994. (Hans Punz/aPA)

Sometimes, what doesn’t happen in an election matters more than what does happen.austria flag

So it was in Vienna on Sunday, when Michael Häupl, the longtime center-left mayor held onto power. That’s not so surprising, because his Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) has controlled Vienna’s state government in every election in the postwar era.

What’s more, though polls showed that the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria) was trailing the Social Democrats by just 1% in the week before Vienna’s elections, the Freedom Party actually lost by nearly 10%. Though the Freedom Party’s result marks a gain against its prior result in 2010, and its strength is growing amid the backdrop of Europe’s migration and refugee crisis, its failure in Vienna is notable.

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After an election campaign that pitted Häupl in competition directly with the Freedom Party’s leader Heinz-Christian Strache, the far right’s failure to break through should come as a relief to Austria’s entire political mainstream, of both right and left. Had Strache won the election, it would have shaken the foundations of the grand coalition that governs Austria under Social Democratic chancellor Werner Faymann.

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Vienna, aside from being Austria’s capital, is also the country’s largest state, with 1.8 million of Austria’s 8.6 million people, so elections for the Landtag invariably influence the national political climate. Die Grünen (the Greens/Green Alternative), the third-placed party, won enough seats to give the SPÖ-led coalition a majority in the state assembly. Continue reading Häupl holds off far-right threat in Vienna elections

Freedom Party surges in Upper Austria with its gaze fixed on Vienna

Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is all smiles campaigning during Oktoberfest.
Freedom Party leader Heinz-Christian Strache is all smiles campaigning during Oktoberfest.

Amid the refugee crisis that has strained European borders, internal and external, since late summer, there’s increasing discussion of using formal diplomatic sanctions against Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán for his intransigence in dealing with migrants, many of whom are Syrians fleeing years of civil war or otherwise miserable refugee camps in an overburdened Lebanon.austria flag

The last time that the European Union assessed diplomatic sanctions, however, was in 2000, when it chided Austria for letting the far-right Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, Freedom Party of Austria) into government.

But in the first electoral test for the eastern European countries at the heart of the migrant crisis, it was the FPÖ that emerged as the clear winner, surging 9% to second place in Oberösterreich (Upper Austria)’s regional elections and winning 18 of the regional parliament’s 56 seats.

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Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, already had reason to be pleased with himself after taking the party to third-place status in Austria’s national parliamentary elections in September 2013.

His party only narrowly lost to the long-dominant center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), which has controlled the state government since 1945, and whose leader, Josef Pühringer, has served as the state’s governor since 1995. Though its population is just 1.44 million, the state is Austria’s industrial heartland and the country’s third-most populous state, and it borders Germany’s Bavaria and the Czech Republic. The  center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) of Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann fell to third place.

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Since 2003, the Austrian People’s Party has governed Upper Austria in a so-called ‘black-green’ coalition with Die Grünen (the Greens/Green Alternative). Though the Greens actually improved on their support from the most recent election in 2009, the ÖVP’s loss of seven seats means that their partnership is two seats short of a majority in the unicameral Landtag. Pühringer will have to form a minority government, looking to the Social Democrats or the Freedom Party for support on a case-by-case basis or otherwise enter into negotiations for a ‘grand coalition’ with the Social Democrats. Continue reading Freedom Party surges in Upper Austria with its gaze fixed on Vienna

The 13 key EU players in the proposed Juncker Commission

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On Wednesday, the incoming president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker (pictured above), released full details on the proposed commissioners within his Commission, which will serve as the chief executive and administrative body of the European Union between 2014 and 2019.European_Union

The most important feature of the proposed Juncker Commission is that he’s introduced the greatest amount of hierarchy in an institution that used to be flat. It’s not a secret that some portfolios have always been more desirable than others, especially as the Commission has expanded to include all 28 member-states. But Juncker has introduced a first vice president and five vice presidents, who will also serve alongside Italy’s foreign minister Federica Mogherini, who was appointed two weeks ago to serve as Commission vice president and high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.

The delegation of so much power to five ‘super-commissioners’ with roving, supervisory briefs indicates that Juncker intends to be a much less hands-on Commission president that his predecessor, José Manuel Barroso. But it also reflects a Commission that, including Luxembourg’s Juncker, contains five former prime ministers (Finland, Slovenia, Latvia and Estonia).  It also contains four incumbents (Germany, Sweden, Bulgaria and Austria) who have served throughout the full second term of the Barroso Commission. That makes the Juncker Commission possibly the most distinguished in EU history.

Each commissioner must be approved by the European parliament and, while individual nominees have had troubles in the past, the parliament typically approves the vast majority of a Commission president’s appointments, all of whom were nominated by their respective national governments.

With nine women, it’s not as unbalanced as feared even a week or two ago, and with 14 members of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), eight members of the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES) and five members of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), it generally reflects the results of the May 25 European parliamentary elections, though some social democrats and socialists are grumbling that the left doesn’t have enough representation.

So what can we expect from this illustrious college of commissioners?

Here’s a look at the 13 most important players in the proposed Commission (aside from Juncker and Mogherini, of course). Continue reading The 13 key EU players in the proposed Juncker Commission

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

Nearly a week after the European elections, the reverberations are still shaking the entire continent, on at least two levels — the consequences of the historic level of eurosceptic parties elected across Europe and in terms of the growing battle between the European Parliament and the European Council over electing the next European Commission president. European_Union

In the first part of a Suffragio series examining the results of the May 25 European parliamentary elections, I focused on the five most populous countries in the European Union: the United Kingdom and France, where eurosceptic parties won the greatest share of the vote; Germany, where chancellor Angela Merkel won another strong victory; Italy, where prime minister Matteo Renzi won a near-landslide mandate just three months into his premiership; and Spain, where both traditional parties lost support to a growing constellation of anti-austerity movements — so much so that Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba, the leader of the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), Spain’s traditional center-left party, resigned

In the second part, I examined the results in nine more countries — Poland, Romania, The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Hungary and Sweden.

In the third and final part, I examine the results in the remaining 14 countries of the European Union. Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 3)

Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

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While most of Europe was watching the birth of Germany’s latest grand coalition government last week, Austria’s grand coalition also finalized its government platform.austria flag

Austria, which has an even stronger tradition of cozy coalition politics between the center-left and the center right, will continue to a coalition that’s comprised of its main center-left party, the Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and its main center-right party, the Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party).

There was very little unexpected news about the coalition deal, which will continue the broadly centrist course of center-left chancellor Werner Faymann’s government.

But the decision to elevate the hunky 27-year-old Sebastian Kurz as Austria’s new foreign minister was something of a shock.  Michael Spindelegger, the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor, who previously served as foreign minister between 2008 and 2013, will become the government’s new finance minister.

The decision leaves Kurz (pictured above) as one of the world’s youngest political leaders in such a high policymaking role.

So who is this whiz kid?  Kurz became involved in politics at age 10, and by 2009, he was the leader of the youth wing of the Austrian People’s Party.  In 2010, he was elected to the city council of his native Vienna, running under the slogan, ‘Schwarz macht neil‘ (‘Black is cool,’ referring to the color most associated with the People’s Party) in a campaign Hummer that quickly gained the nickname as the ‘Geilomobil‘ (which translates roughly to ‘Horny-mobile’), befitting Kurz’s growing reputation as somewhat of a party animal.  Before you judge him too harshly, however, remember that it was part of a wider push to make the ÖVP more attractive to young voters. And just four months ago, two competing leaders of the Austrian far right both posed shirtless in public.

But by 2011 he was already serving as state secretary for integration, where he impressed skeptics by working to ease the path for the growing number of immigrants to Austria, including through the institution of an extra year of pre-school for immigrant children to learn German.  He helped spearhead a new immigration law in May of this year that clears a path to citizenship for some immigrants within six years.

It was a controversial move on Spindelegger’s part, but it paid off, and Kurz was elected to the Nationalrat (National Council), the chief house of the Austrian parliament, in the September 29 parliamentary elections with a higher number of votes than any other candidate. 

His approach contrasts with that of the more xenophobic approach to immigration of Austria’s far right.  In  September, the Social Democrats won 27.1% and the Austrian People’s Party won 23.8%, but the anti-immigrant, anti-EU Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) won 21.4%, a strong third-place finish.  But a Dec. 12 Hajek poll showed that if the elections were held over today, the Freedom Party would emerge as the leading party with 26%, followed by the Social Democrats with 23% and the Austrian People’s Party at 20%.  A new free-market libertarian partyDas Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria), which entered the National Council for the first time in September’s elections, would win 11%.

The Freedom Party’s relatively young and charismatic leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, wasted no time in criticizing Kurz for his inexperience:

“When Mr Kurz becomes foreign minister without any diplomatic experience, you have to be amazed. This is the continuation of Austria’s farewell to foreign policy,” right-wing leader Heinz Christian Strache told parliament on Tuesday.

Kurz… took the blows.  “It’s true, of course. Due to my age I have limited experience and of course hardly any diplomatic experience. But what I bring is lots of diligence, energy and the desire to contribute something,” he told Reuters.

But Kurz emphasized the international nature of his previous role with respect to integration, and he argued that his relative youth and high media profile would allow him to make an immediate impact.  Though Austria, with just 8.5 million people, has a less dominant voice on European matters than Germany, it plays a key role in the Balkans, where Serbia and other former Yugoslav countries are hoping to begin accession talks to the European Union early next year. (If your German skills are up for it, here’s an interview with Kurz in Der Standard earlier this week).

Kurz’s appointment also means that he will likely take a key role in the upcoming European Parliament elections by convincing Austrian voters not to turn to euroskeptic parties like the Freedom Party or Team Stronach, the conservative movement of Austro-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach.  Spindelegger was criticized during his tenure at the ministry for being a ‘half-time foreign minister’ in light of his duties as the ÖVP leader and deputy chancellor. Continue reading Who is Sebastian Kurz? Meet Austria’s new 27-year-old foreign minister.

Austrian election results: grand coalition reelected, Freedom Party solidifies gains on far right

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With nearly all of the votes counted in Austria’s election today, it appears that the current grand coalition led by center-left chancellor Werner Faymann will continue — for up to another five years.austria flag

Just one week after Germans massively supported chancellor Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats for steering Germany largely unscathed through the worst of the economic crisis, Austrians appeared ready to do the same for Faymann, though his Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) did not score the kind of overwhelming victory that Merkel’s Christian Democrats won last week — the SPÖ lost over 2% of the vote since the September 2008 election.

But their coalition partners, the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), also lost 2.2% of the vote from 2008.  Together, however, the two parties won enough seats (99) to continue to hold an absolute majority in Austria’s 183-member Nationalrat (National Council), the chief house of the Austrian parliament.

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But the far-right, anti-EU, anti-immigrant Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) won just four seats less than the People’s Party and it won over 21% of the vote.  That’s largely because voters on the far right abandoned the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ, Alliance for the Future of Austria), the splinter group that former Freedom Party leader Jörg Haider founded in 2005.

Believe it or not, today’s election was the first one without Haider in nearly two decades following his sensational death in October 2008, and the BZÖ lost over 7% from the 2008 election — and missed the 4% electoral hurdle required to hold seats in Austria’s National Council.  Given Haider’s absence from the political scene, many BZÖ supporters turned back to the Freedom Party.  In any event, it’s certainly a huge victory for FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache (pictured above), whose party gained more support than any of the parties that contested the 2008 election.  Strache is one of the big winners in today’s election, and that will amplify his voice as the chief opposition leader in Austria.

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Continue reading Austrian election results: grand coalition reelected, Freedom Party solidifies gains on far right

Austria election tomorrow likely to result in grand coalition, reelection for Faymann

Austria goes to the polls tomorrow to select 183 members of the Nationalrat (National Council), the lower house of Austria’s parliament — but by far the most important.  What better musical selection than Johann Strauss II’s Kaiserwaltzer?austria flag

Austria’s elections are determined on the basis of proportional representation, so no matter who wins, Austria will have a coalition government.

The most likely result, according to polls, is the continuation of a ‘red-black’ or ‘grand’ coalition between the two dominant parties in Austrian politics, the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party).

Polls also showed the anti-EU, anti-immigration, right-wing Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ, the Freedom Party of Austria) gaining ground, but still in third place.

Though Austria’s chancellor Werner Faymann leads a consensus-driven government, he’s in some ways the opposite of German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose own center-right party won a huge victory just last weekend.  With an approach that’s leaned away from the austerity budgets of much of the rest of Europe, Faymann has boosted Austrian spending over the past five years on stimulative measures, including a massive commitment to job training.  That’s left Austria with the lowest unemployment rate among the 28 member states of the European Union.

Even if the SPÖ and the ÖVP win the largest and second-largest shares of the vote, they may still not win enough seats to form a majority because up to seven parties could win seats today.

Austria’s Die Grünen – Die Grüne Alternative (Green Party) will likely be the fourth-largest party in the National Council, but three smaller parties could also enter the parliament — the new eurosceptic Team Stronach, founded last year by Austrian-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach; the Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ, Alliance for the Future of Austria), a liberal splinter group of the FPÖ; and Das Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria), a new liberal party that formed last year as well.

Meet Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann, Europe’s Superman of Keynesian economics

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Austrians go to the polls on September 29, and just as with Germany’s election last weekend, voters seem inclined to reward a government that has largely kept Austria’s economy strong through a time of recession and unemployment throughout much of the rest of Europe.austria flag

But German chancellor Angela Merkel has steered a largely moderate, pragmatic course over the past eight years in Germany, and it’s arguable that Germany’s economic success owes much to its position as Europe’s largest economy and its role as a leading global high-tech manufacturer than to any Merkel-era economic policies — if anything, Merkel’s center-left predecessor Gerhard Schröder pushed through the policies (including the Hartz IV labor and welfare reforms) that steeled Germany for the economic storm of the late 2000s and early 2010s.

In Austria, however, it’s been an even more sanguine story.

The country has a 4.8% unemployment rate, according to Eurostat, the lowest among all 27 countries in the European Union.  Its GDP dropped just 3.8% in 2008 (a narrower drop than in Germany), and it returned to growth thereafter — even in 2012, it managed to record GDP growth of 0.8% while most of the eurozone was mired in recession.

So what has Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann and his government done over the past five years in order to steer Austria out of the straits of the eurozone morass?  As it turns out, a lot.

While several European countries have served as battlegrounds for harsh transatlantic battles among economists over economic policy (the usual suspects, but also places like Iceland, Latvia and Estonia), you would think that neo-Keynesian economists would be shouting from the rooftops about Austria’s economic stewardship.  Don’t confuse Austria’s economic policy today with Austrian economics, as such, which is something very much the opposite.

Since his election in September 2008, Faymann has led a grand coalition between his own center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) and the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), and it’s about as anti-austerity a government as Europe has seen.

Given the strength of the Austrian labor movement, Austria immediately pursued the kind of work-sharing policies that Germany also adopted in the aftermath of the crisis when aggregate demand tumbled — the idea that shorter working hours for everyone would be a way to disperse the slack in the economy, thereby avoiding the wave of layoffs that we saw in the United States.

But Faymann also pushed through job training legislation that massively empowered Austria’s Arbeitsmarktservice (AMS, Austrian Employment Service), including strong benefits for the unemployed and the guarantee of a paid training internship for young Austrians in the marketplace.  Austria’s labor market has performed exactly the opposite of that in the United States — unemployment rose in Austria because more workers were seeking jobs, while the US unemployment rate has dropped partly because so many American workers have given up on finding employment.

Faymann also allowed Austria’s public debt to rise from around 60% in 2008 to 75% today in order to finance the jobs legislation and other stimulative measures to shore up Austria’s economy.  His government also took the lead in convincing the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to provide up to €125 billion to stabilize banks in the Central European and South Eastern European (CESEE) region, a strategy that worked to reassure global investors.  A financial panic in CESEE region countries, such as Hungary, would have led to massive losses for Austrian banks as well.  The idea is that a credible commitment from government at the outset of a financial crisis will stave off a larger financial panic.  Contrast the far less proactive European response to the wider sovereign debt crisis — it was only in July 2012, the eurozone crisis’s third year, that European Central Bank president Mario Draghi said he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to save the euro.

Faymann is campaigning on a platform of instituting a wealth tax on millionaires and institutionalizing a levy on the assets of large banks, both of which Faymann hopes will keep income inequality relatively low in a society that already has one of the world’s lowest Gini coefficients.

With a record like that, why isn’t Paul Krugman cheerleading for Faymann from the op-ed pages of The New York Times?  Here’s a European leader who has pursued as close to a Krugmanite economic policy as anyone.

For one, you could easily argue that Austria’s just been lucky.   Continue reading Meet Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann, Europe’s Superman of Keynesian economics

Austrian NEOS may win seats in Nationalrat in resurrection of liberal politics

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While Germany’s major liberal party suffered a historic defeat in last weekend’s parliamentary elections, a new Austrian party may win enough seats to return a liberal voice to Austria’s parliament for the first time in nearly 20 years in Austria’s national elections this weekend.austria flag

If it can win 4% of the vote on Sunday, the Das Neue Österreich (NEOS, The New Austria) could enter the Nationalrat, the key 183-member chamber of Austria’s parliament, which would mean that free-market and social liberals would have a voice in Austrian parliamentary politics for the first time since the Liberales Forum (Liberal Forum) lost all of its seats in the 1999 parliamentary elections.  Polls in the lead-up to Austria’s election show the NEOS gaining strength, but still hovering between 3% and the 4% electoral hurdle, and the NEOS continues to gain credibility and momentum in the final days of the campaign.

What’s more, if the NEOS enter the parliament, and the two current governing parties, the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Österreichs (SPÖ, Social Democratic Party of Austria) of chancellor Werner Faymann and the center-right Österreichische Volkspartei (ÖVP, Austrian People’s Party), fail to win an absolute majority of seats to continue a two-party grand coalition, the NEOS could conceivably enter government as well in Europe’s first ‘red-black-pink’ coalition.

Given the coziness of Austria’s political elite, and the fact that grand coalitions have dominated Austrian governance in the postwar era, there’s much to recommend the return of a fresh and liberal voice to Austrian politics — or even Austrian government.  Not too shabby for a party that didn’t exist one year ago.

The NEOS were founded as a political party in October 2012, mainly as an alliance of what remains of the Liberal Forum and the Young Liberals, another small party, under the leadership of Matthias Strolz.  Since September, the party’s lead parliamentary candidate has been Hans-Peter Haselsteiner, the CEO of Austrian construction company Strabag and a Liberal deputy in the Nationalrat in the 1990s — it was a stunning reversal for Haselsteiner, who had previously remained somewhat aloof from the NEOS earlier this year.  Not only does Haselsteiner have the deep pockets to finance a strong showing, he’s also one of the most well-known liberals in the country.  Austrians vote for parties through an open-list proportional representation system, so if the NEOS surpass the 4% threshold, the NEOS should count on at least seven seats in the Nationalrat.

Moreover, if the NEOS do enter the Nationalrat, they could lower the total number of seats that the SPÖ and ÖVP can hope to win, making it even more likely that the SPÖ and ÖVP will be forced to look for a third coalition partner to cobble together a governing majority.

In an ironic twist, the NEOS could well enter Austria’s parliament just days after Germany’s Freie Demokratische Partei (FDP, Free Democratic Party) narrowly failed to win 5% of the vote and, accordingly, Germany’s liberal party failed to win a single seat in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany’s parliament, for the first time since 1949.  Continue reading Austrian NEOS may win seats in Nationalrat in resurrection of liberal politics

Why do the neutral Swiss love military conscription so much?

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With most of my writing efforts focused on Germany for the past week, I neglected to spend much time writing (or thinking) about last weekend’s referendum in Switzerland, where voters once again rejected an effort to abolish mandatory conscription in the Swiss military.swiss

Swiss voters overwhelmingly opposed abolition — by a vote of 73.2% to 26.8%.

Here’s more background from Reuters:

Under Swiss law, all able-bodied men are required to take part in compulsory military service between the ages of 18 and 34. Recruits complete 18-21 weeks of basic training followed by yearly refresher courses of around 19 days.

Critics say the concept is antiquated, and question the need for an army, which at roughly 150,000 troops is the same size as the Austrian, Belgian, Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish armed forces combined.

It’s a pretty staggering defeat for the anti-conscription and pacifist forces in Switzerland — in December 2001, 21.9% of the electorate voted to replace the Swiss army with a more benign peace force, and in November 1989, fully 35.6% of the electorate voted to abolish the Swiss army altogether.

Why would the Swiss cling so tenaciously to its military force?  After all, the Swiss army fought its last war in the Napoleonic Wars in alliance with Great Britain and Russia — and that war ended in 1815.  Its tradition of neutrality in international affairs is so strong that it’s not a member of the European Union (though it is part of the European single market and a party to the Schengen free-travel zone) and it joined the United Nations only in 2002.

Swiss defense minister Ueli Maurer argues that abolishing military service could break the link between the Swiss people and its army.  But it turns out there are a lot of decent reasons for keeping conscription in place, and they don’t all have to do with the vague notion of ‘tradition.’

At the outset, it’s important to keep in mind that conscription in Switzerland isn’t exactly the same thing as, say, the three-year tour of duty that most Israeli men begin at age 18 (it’s two years for Israeli women).  From an economic standpoint, there are opportunity costs to maintaining Swiss conscription, but those costs are far smaller than in a place like Israel because the Swiss conscription commitment is so much smaller.

But there’s also a difference in the nature of the risk as well.  Since 2007, Swiss conscripts aren’t even issued a box of ammunition.  The risks of a shooting war with neighboring Austria aren’t exactly the same as the very real risks of any number of security challenges that conscripts in the Israeli Defense Forces could face — and have faced in Lebanon and from the Shiite Lebanese group Hezbollah and the Palestinian group Hamas in recent years.

There’s also something to the idea that mandatory conscription forces governments to think harder about the consequences of deploying troops into foreign misadventures.  There’s a reason why antiwar Democrats in the 2000s in the United States kept pushing for the reintroduction of a military draft — it’s a way to force all segments of society to feel the gravity of military engagement, and it increases the political costs of putting your military forces in the line of danger.  Nonetheless, it’s hard to believe that, but for conscription, Switzerland would have otherwise spent the 20th century engaged in ill-advised martial exercises. (Nor is it necessarily credible that the Swiss army effectively deterred an invasion from Nazi Germany — instead, there’s mounting evidence that the Swiss and their banks were complicit with the Nazi regime).

It’s also important to remember that Switzerland is a federal confederation of 26 highly autonomous cantons with four language-speaking groups of citizens — German, French, Italian and Romansh.  The conscription requirement is a way to pull together young individuals from Switzerland’s multiple traditions, so you can think of conscription as less a military obligation and more of a nation-building exercise — or even an exercise in personal and social growth.

There’s something to this, too.  Since the end of the Lebanese civil war, the Lebanese military has had this effect, and it’s helped contribute to the wide respect that the military holds in Lebanon.  Military service in the United States during World War II brought together young men from very different parts of the country and served as a key catalyst in isolating the American south’s segregation — if black men were capable of fighting and dying in Europe, why shouldn’t they have the same rights as everyone else?  Though conscription in the Yugoslav People’s Army until 1992 didn’t stop the disintegration of the Balkans, imagine how much stronger Bosnia and Herzegovina might be today if it instituted the tradition of conscription in a nation-building peacekeeping force.

Continue reading Why do the neutral Swiss love military conscription so much?

A primer on the House of Schwarzenberg

houseofschwarzenbergWith the emergence of Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg as one of two finalists for the Czech presidency in a runoff to be held later this month, it’s worth taking a closer look at the House of Schwarzenberg and its role in European history throughout the centuries.austria flagczech

The house dates back to the Middle Ages, and perhaps its most illustrious member was once referred to as the ‘Austrian Bismarck’ for guiding the Austro-Hungarian empire during the tumultuous and revolutionary 1840s.

So if he wins the runoff on January 26, Karel Schwarzenberg will become an elected head of state with familial ties running throughout the remnants of European monarchy. Schwarzenberg’s mother belonged to another princely family, the Fürstenbergs, making him cousins with the late fashion designer Egon von Fürstenberg.  He was also second cousins with Ranier III, who was the prince of Monaco from 1949 until his death in 2005.

The family was initially based Franconia, in what is present-day Bavaria in Germany, and you can tour the ‘Schloss Schwarzenberg’ near Scheinfeld in Bavaria today.  Rebuilt in 1618 after its destruction by a fire, it was increasingly less important as the family’s base moved from Franconia to Bohemia in the heart of what is today the Czech Republic in the 17th century (though the castle was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, used as an American hospital on their march to Nuremberg, and it was transformed into a center for Czech literature in 1986).

One of the most influential of the earliest Schwarzenbergs was Johann, a close friend of Martin Luther, an episcopal judge who revised his court’s code of evidence and an influential member of the government of the Holy Roman Empire.

Adam, Count of Schwarzenberg, played a unique role as a top adviser of the Brandenburg Privy Council in the 1630s during the reign of elector George William, keeping Brandenburg neutral during the Thirty Years’ War, though he was ultimately forced to raise an army to expel invading Swedes and became the de facto ruler of Brandenburg from 1638 to 1640 when George William was forced into exile.

The Schwarzenberg coat of arms (pictured above) features a rather graphic tale about central Europe’s battles with the Ottoman Empire — a raven is pecking away at the head of a Turkish man, which was meant to symbolize the 1598 capture of a fortress, Raab (which translates to ‘raven’) in present-day Hungary.

Despite his family’s historical antipathy to the Ottomans in the 16th century, Karel Schwarzenberg, as the Czech foreign minister, has been relatively friendly to a possible Turkish accession to the European Union when the Czech Republic held the rotating six-month EU presidency in 2009, and he even used European history as a way to tweak France’s strident opposition to Turkey’s EU bid:

In the 17th century when central European countries all together fought fierce battles with Turkey, during the Ottoman offensive in Europe, France was practically an ally of Turkey.  In the 19th century, as you know, in the Crimean War, France was an ally of Turkey.  And now they are opposing it.  You see, alliances and attitudes come and go and change, and sometimes we see that even during our lifetime. Continue reading A primer on the House of Schwarzenberg