The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, particularly the failure of European governments to agree on national quotas (or some countries’ refusal to accept any) has dominated headlines and political agenda across Europe. Austria has been no exception, yet here the handling of refugees has led to (yet another) conflict in the governing coalition partners, escalating to the point that some commentators speculated whether early elections would be called. However, while the possibility of the latter had already been denied by chancellor Werner Fayman the conflict took on a new dimension when president Fischer became exceptionally vocal in the debate.
Since early last month the two parties in Austria’s grand coalition, the Social Democrats of Chancellor Werner Fayman and the People’s Party, have quarrelled over how to deal with the surge in asylum seekers. In particular, controversy centred around the country’s only refugee ‘reception centre’ which has exceeded its capacity, leading interior minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner (People’s Party) to build tents as temporary accommodation and to negotiate a deal with neighbouring Slovakia to take up to 500 refugees. To alleviate the crisis, chancellor Fayman proposed to distribute refugees across Austria and have districts deal with the formalities. This step has however been fiercely opposed by the People’s Party and their state governors (currently heading 6 of the country’s 9 federal states) have rejected the idea of a quota for further distribution of refugees or opening more reception centres. The lines of conflict thus run both between the parties in government and within the People’s Party, more precisely between federal and state representatives. In fact, a number of leading Social Democrats even suggested that the People’s Party-led ministry of foreign and affairs and integration should take care of the issue.
The Austrian presidency is characterised by the fact that its incumbents – despite an independent electoral mandate through popular elections and comparatively wide-ranging powers – usually refrain from playing an overly political role, rather taking the role of arbiter above parties than party politician. Likewise, president Heinz Fischer (non-partisan, formerly member of the Social Democrats), waited until last week to join the debate following Slovakia’s offer to accept refugees. Although appreciative of the deal with its neighbour, he criticised the government saying that this could not be a long-term solution to the crisis. In an interview with state broadcaster ORF Fischer said he supported chancellor Fayman’s suggestion, yet also directly criticised the People’s Party for their confrontational style and reprimanded both parties for waging the conflict in the public eye).
Fischer is now entering the last year of his presidency (after serving two terms he is not eligible for re-election) and has generally avoided potentially controversial public statements or political interventions. Not having to depend on any party for support for a potential re-election he can certainly be more vocal and play a more active role without needing to fear voters or government/parliament. However, this only seems to part of the explanation for his current activism. A potential further reason for his intervention might not only be the deteriorating humanitarian situation but also the fact that the refugee crisis is increasingly exploited by the notorious right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) whose approval ratings have risen constantly throughout the last months. Fischer was a vocal critic of the FPÖ’s inclusion in the government with the People’s Party in 2002 (he was speaker of parliament at the time) for which Austria was ostracised by other EU members. It is thus possible that he is trying use his (apolitical) role and public standing to avoid a situation in which the issue of immigration is claimed by the far-right tarnishing the country’s reputation once again.