The (re)Birth of Direct Democracy – Part 1

It has always been a source of mystification to me that in a city so rich in history, culture, the arts, scientific development, philosophical exploration and intellectual inquiry that there is one contemporary subject above all others which dominates the daily discourse of the streets of Vienna and is guaranteed to ignite even the most unyielding ember of indifference amongst local burghers. No, not whether there should be a cap on German immigrants moving to Vienna, but where you can and cannot park your car. This is even more perplexing when one thinks of the city’s totemic legacy built around the numerous centres of public debate, erudition and thought – the coffee house – institutions which do as much to capture or define the true spirit of Vienna as much as the classical music, historical imperial grandiosity or cheese-filled sausages. Even the recent referendum on whether to abolish Austrian conscription for a professional army (an Austrian issue not just a Viennese one) and the debate before and after was inconsequential when compared to the on-going discussion about rights of the car driver to park in the city.

I am tempted to say this is absurd. Bur recently a friend reminded me that all socio-politics is local (what I call political parochialism) and it is a view I have subscribed to on many occasions. Indeed, if there was a snap election in the UK tomorrow then the issue of Europe or what is happening in the US would take a clear backseat to the issue of convenience food and failed race horses. And why would Austria or Vienna be an different? Sure they grumble about the Euro or the profligacy of Greece but what is governing the current political mood nationally is the on-going corruption of elements of the People’s Party and it is this “local” issue, like parking, that will provide a window of opportunity for the bonkers reactionist policies of Frank “I say what you are thinking” Stronach and the loathsome and contemptible toads of the far-right (see below).

But what about history? Broadly speaking, old Vienna was built and developed at a time when any allusion to being transported around in a fire-powered four-seater would normally result in a knock at the door from a man of faith clutching a book opened at H for heretic followed by a short walk to the local stake. What this means is that traffic management in the 21st century is pretty much what you would expect from a compact, historical yet forward thinking city, intent on balancing private and public traffic usage, maintaining its integrity as a “green space” and allegedly shafting car users, if you believe the motoring organisations and anyone in opposition to the ruling social democratic-green alliance in the city parliament.

Lovely boys from the right wing Freedom Party whose job is to oppose every policy from the ruling Red-Green coalition.

This means that to park in most of the city’s 23 districts you need a permit, or Pickerl. There are two types: the annual permit based on residence giving you the right to park in your district costing about 150 Euro; and the short-term ticket (Parkschein) which can be used for parking anywhere it is possible (one Euro for 30 minutes).

According to the dangerously influential daily freesheet, Heute, on the 7th January this year when the Schonfrist ended (an romantic honeymoon period between car owners and traffic wardens) and the extension of the Pickerl came into rigorous force in Ottakring (16th) Hernals (17th) and Penzing (14th), 1700 parking fines were issued by the much loved “Park Sheriffs”. (In Vienna as a whole 6000 parking violations are tagged on average per day.) Not unexpectedly the changes are causing a certain amount of consternation and confusion, pitching not only resident against resident but commuter against commuter, resident against commuter and everybody seemingly against the Green Party (junior partners in city coalition and multi-purpose whipping boys when things are going wrong). Except in my street where there is no permit and places are determined by a series of early morning duels followed by numerous toasts to Mickey Häupl, the mayor, and his green chums with highly illegal home brewed schnapps.

In any case, my sympathy is infinitesimal, although I am car driver. This is driven by the belief that if you live in the city and can afford to run a car, and want to run a car, then 150 Euro to park in your district is small Erdapfeln. The fact that you might not be guaranteed a place to park is mir Wurscht (loosely translated as, I do not give a monkeys). Get a bicycle and some of those wacky cycling tights, start pedalling and stop whinging.

That said, for the grumbling masses there is, providentially, a ray of hope. Vienna has gone all Swiss and suddenly developed a recent passion for something called direct democracy and referendums (referendum is a Swiss word which means elected officials let you make the decisions but blame you if these decisions go a bit fondue). Etymology aside, I am reliably told by the magazine of the city, appropriately named “Wien AT”, that direct democracy is respect for other opinions”. Which is nice. And the message you read everywhere is that “Vienna wants to know.” But will they listen? I wonder…

It means: “Your opinion counts” and comes from the Vienna government website, which as a local taxpayer, I technically own.

But in asphalt terms this means locals will be able to register their parp as part of 4 questions on the weekend of the 7th March one of which will ask about the parking situation, bundled up with an eye to the next Mercer Study and talk of improving life quality. This tells you a lot about the political pragmatism of Austria. There is a tendency to implement a policy and then ask the people, spending not inconsiderable sums in the process, if they think it was a good idea or not. In this case Vienna is no different and the extension of the parking restrictions is a perfect example. Indeed, there are already murmurings that if there is widespread support for a relaxing of the new parking laws, then it will not so much be a u-turn but some serious burning rubber with local politicians performing doughnuts outside the town hall. Which if you think about it should be a referendum question in itself. But remember, if you are out with your Viennese Kumpeln (buddies), in the Café, the Beisl (yiddish for pub) or the Heuriger (wine tavern) and are struggling for something to discuss that does not involve an App, or if like me you simply enjoy winding anybody up, just whisper Parkpickerl and then run away.

Poster for 4 referendum questions.

We will return to the burning issues of the referendum soon. But until then let us take a democratic pause and ponder the other 3 questions, flawlessly translated for your intellectual enjoyment:

  • Should Vienna apply as the host nation for the summer Olympics in 2028?
  • Should public services (water, waster disposal, energy, hospitals etc..) be privatised?
  • Should the city invest and build renewable energy sources?

© R. J Barratt 2013

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