The Presidential Suite – Part 1

Richard Lugner announcing candidacy for president
Much of the world is focused on a certain election across the Atlantic, which is baffling because here in Austria, a shadowy place, full of misery and moral turpitude, there is also a presidential election in 2016.

Interestingly, I read in an edition of last week’s city newspaper Heute, whose editorial strategy for 2016 is to mention one story per day about the iniquitous effects of migrants, juxtaposed with an advert for the Vienna police and how they are maintaining social order, that former building tycoon, reality television mainstay and host of Hollywood stars at the yearly Opera Ball, Richard Lugner, will again be running. I say again, because back in 1998 he also ran as an independent getting ten percent of the vote. It was a bonkers idea then and given that he is now 18 years older, much poorer and with a newish wife younger than seems possible even if you have a bit of cash (he doesn’t), no less bonkers now.

But why should the United States monopolise the political of the preposterous? At least it throws in a bit of glamour to the process and with the Lugners promising to become the Clintons of Austria politics, we can presumably look forward to impeachment and cigars. Of course, Lugner has about as much chance as any other millionaire property developer with carefully procured hair and some crazy ideas of attaining high political office. Hang on …

In any case, I should declare my interest here. My late brother-in-law, Viennese to the core, very clever and funnier in English than most Canadians I have ever met, was good friends with one of the Lugner sons and in fact used to do public relations for him and his companies. Although thinking about it, his version of communications strategy and crisis management usually involved ten minutes of looking for a suitable “press release” in one of his files, changing the names and dates, issuing an invoice akin to the monthly salary of a kindergarten teacher and then retiring to the Beisl.

Which is how all jobs should be except politicians and presidents. So, in this two-part special we first consider the constitutional position of president in Austria and an event which changed the course of Austrian post-war identity. And then, in part two, a brief look at and character assassination of the main candidates.

Head of State

The position of President in Austria is largely ceremonial although he or she (it has never been a she) doesn’t get to wear a crown or live in a palace (work, yes; in a wing of the Hofburg). This means there are lots of events, dinners with foreign dignitaries and a yearly visit to the Opera Ball (see Richard Lugner). Once here, he, perhaps a she, gets a prime position and the enviable task of being interviewed by Austria’s most prominent gay television and theatre performer, Alfons Haider (this is usually with the UN Secretary General or some other Saft-Zug flunkey who is subject to Alfons’ version of English).

However, when there is a general election, the president acts as mediator, charged with calling on the leader of the party with the highest share of the popular vote to form a government. In recent times this has almost always been a coalition and the last outright winner was in 1979 when the socialists polled 51% of the ballot. Technically the president can pass the responsibility of building a “grand coalition” to a minor party if the “election winner” is incapable of forming a government in a timely manner (in 2006 it took three months). And he/she can veto government appointments. But such constitutional powers are rarely invoked.

Furthermore, as head of state the president is the de facto chief of the military and can theoretically mobilise the army. But in reality the power lives with the Chancellor and the Ministry of Defence (and possibly NATO in spite of Austria’s carefully crafted neutrality).

For the past twelve years we have had Heinz Fischer (social democratic party) a career politician on the sniff for one last political gig before being pensioned off to a part-time position of non-executive director at a bank. Probably the most notable thing about his presidency was that on taking office, he relinquished the presidential place – admittedly run down – in Vienna’s exceedingly posh 19th district and instead preferred to stay in his exceedingly posh 8th district apartment near the parliament.

Sadly, this is about as interesting as it gets. Although it doesn’t come close to matching my favourite story about the time he was allegedly spotted in Billa on the Josefstädterstrasse buying a can of baked beans.

Heinz’s time in the Hofburg was not without controversy, however. Or would have been if they had been anything controversial. Aside from that overnight diplomatic intervention in 2013 when the President of Bolivia’s plane was re-diverted to Vienna and Heinz had to play host at the airport and diffuse a diplomatic incident. But his twelve years are up as terms are fixed at six years with an option to stand only one more time.

The point being that re-election is usually uncontested. It suits the main political parties (except the FPOE) to have a stable president of moderate intent who has few political ambitions and little appetite to provoke constitutional mischief. Indeed, this was certainly the case for much of the post-war period. Until the world woke up to the small Alpine republic somewhere in Europe and a certain Kurt Waldheim.

The Waldheim Affair

It is at this point that we must reach for our history books and the year 1986. A year that gifted us more hair than was necessary, over-sized padded suits and those masters of Cuban pop music, The Miami Sound Machine.

Now you may not remember Kurt Waldheim but he was President of Austria between 1986 and 1992. Prior to that he had been Austrian Foreign Minister between 1968 and 1970 and then in 1972 became Secretary General of the United Nations, renewing his tenure five years later.

Much of this, according to historian Gordon Brooks-Shepherd in his excellent book The Austrians (published in 1996) was down to Waldheim’s “single-minded ruthlessness” but more tellingly, certainly at the time, due to the appealing image of his home nation: “small, neutral, harmless, but also civilised and decent” (clearly he had never visited Vienna’s 21st district Florisdorf).

Four years after leaving the UN, Waldheim was campaigning to become President of his home nation. As Brooks-Shepherd reminds us, this was to have been “a dream ending of a dream career: six years in office as head of state virtually guaranteed, with the prospects of a second term” (I want this job).

But this is when things started to fall apart, thrusting Austria into the international spotlight and making Waldheim as famous as Falco. So what exactly transpired? In short, it was revealed he had served in a Wehrmacht (the army) unit during the Second World War which was complicit in war crimes, a fact that he had managed to conceal for the previous 40 years (we all have our secrets). There was never any evidence that First Lieutenant Kurt, essentially a desk jockey, ever personally took part in the direct deportation or murder of Jews and others to the concentration camps. Moreover, there was no evidence to even suggest he was a Nazi. But the point was that he must have known about it and this was enough to stir a wave of protest, rumoured, but always denied, to have been instigated by the rival Socialist party in Austria as the election campaign got going.

Crucially, this alerted the American Jewish lobby and from that moment Waldheim’s reputation and international standing started to unravel. Yet although Waldheim had concealed his role during the War from everyone but himself and his wife – claiming he was stationed somewhere near Trieste – he was elected as President anyway, with 54 percent of the vote.

Without going into too much detail, international condemnation followed, diplomatic ties cut and eventually Waldheim was added to the “Watch List” of the American Department of Justice rendering him an “undesirable alien”. In short, Waldheim and Austria were banished to the international naughty step. Alone. Defiant. Humiliated. For six embarrassing years.

Yet, the effect was significant. According to Brooks Shepherd, the Waldheim affair marked a crucial turning point in the nation’s perception of themselves and perception of Austria by the outside world. During its six years of “quarantine” Austria:

“Had been forced to shed some carefully nurtured delusions and illusions. The Austrians, like Waldheim, had got used to thinking of themselves purely as victims of Nazism, with no regard for the part they played in the regime of evil, the Holocaust included.”

Up until that point Austria was the land of “The Sound of Music, Strauss and Mozart; Danube steamers and alpine ski-runs” (writing today he would have included Conchita Wurst). But the enforced isolation changed all that, albeit temporarily, turning the nation in on itself (like a sulky teenager). But like teenagers, countries eventually grow up and only four years later they were embraced by the European bosom and membership of the EU.

In part 2 we introduce and assess the candidates for 2016.

Ps –  Saft-Zug (gravy train).

© RJ Barratt 2016