Tag Archives: Werner Faymann

Austria – President intervenes in coalition conflict over refugee crisis

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.

Austrian president Heinz Fischer discussing the problems in the coalition government on TV last week

Austrian president Heinz Fischer discussing the problems in the coalition government on TV last week

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.

Two grand coalitions formed – Austria and Germany

During the past week, Conservatives and Social Democrats in both Austria and Germany finally agreed on the formation on so-called ‘grand coalitions’. While a coalition of the two largest parties has been nothing new for Austria (since WWII both parties have only ever not been in a coalition between 1966-1986 and 2000-2006), in Germany it is only the third pairing of this kind since 1949 and the second since German unification in 1990. Nevertheless, the government formation process turned out to be lengthy not only in Germany, but also in Austria.

Seat distribution in the Austrian National Council and German Bundestag_presidential-power.com

In Austria, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) have been the senior partner in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) coalition since 2007. Both parties suffered losses in the elections and despite the announcement of the ÖVP to also hold talks with the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ; a coalition of ÖVP and FPÖ had resulted in international outrage in 1999/2000) a continuation of the grand coalition was the only practicable option. The main difficulties in the negotiations were not only policy differences between parties but also the budgetary deficit and the SPÖ’s insistence on a leading role (despite having won only 5 more seats than the ÖVP). In early December, ÖVP even appealed to President Heinz Fischer to ease coalition talks (a surprising step given the largely ceremonial role of the Austrian president and the fact that Fischer himself is a SPÖ member).

In Germany, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian counterpart, the Christian and Social Union (CSU), fell only four seats short of an absolute majority and it was thus clear that they would be part of the next coalition. After their previous junior coalition partner, the (economically & socially) liberal Free Democrats (FDP) failed to enter parliament, CDU/CSU held talks with both the Social Democrats (SPD; second largest party in parliament) and the Greens, yet eventually opted for coalition talks with the SPD. Here, too, the insistence of the CDU/CSU to impose their policy proved to be a hindrance, although the most controversial topic turned out to the – overall less significant – introduction of tolls on German motorways that would only apply to foreigners (a measure proposed by CSU chairman Seehofer). Eventually, the SPD moved to ask its 475,000 members for approval of the coalition treaty (the threat of which had allowed them pursue a two-level bargaining strategy and arguably push through more of their demands) which further lengthened the process. As 76% of voting members (70% turnout) voted for the coalition, the SPD emerges from the risky manoeuvre with new strength.

duration of government formation process_Austria_Germany
Source: Diermeier, D., P. Van Roozendaal.(1998) “The duration of cabinet formation processes in western multi-party democracies.” British Journal of Political Science 28.4: 609-626; own additions

In effect, coalition talks in both countries lasted much longer than the average of years past. In Germany, the formation took almost twice as long as the average duration of post-election government formations (and still 21 days longer than the formation of the last grand coalition in 2005). In Austria, the formation process only lasted a good three weeks longer than the post-WWII average (although it needs to be noted that the average in the last 20 years has been 82 days, so that the formation of the new government appears to have been accomplished slightly faster than this more recent average).

As shown below, the final distribution of ministries largely confirmed Gamson’s Law (the nominal under-representation of the SPÖ and CDU is balanced by the fact that their candidate becomes chancellor; the over-representation of the CSU as the smallest party also belongs to the known exceptions to the law). 

government party seat share and portfolio allocation

In Austria, the nomination of 27 year-old Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) as foreign minister came as a surprise to many (the ministry had previously been headed by ÖVP chairman and deputy chancellor Spindelegger who became finance minister). The fact that there will be no minister exclusively responsible for science and research has also prompted some discussion among and resistance from academics. In Germany, most speculations about ministerial nominees proved true (although parties waited with the official announcement until the SPD members’ vote on the coalition treaty had passed), the only real surprise being the nomination of the potential Merkel successors Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) as minister of defense. For a full list of cabinet members see below:

Austria
Chancellor: Werner Faymann (SPÖ, male, 53)
Deputy Chancellor/Finance: Michael Spindelegger (ÖVP, male, 53)
Family & Youth: Sophie Karmasin (ÖVP, female, 46)
Justice: Wolfgang Brandstetter (ÖVP, male, 56)
Foreign Affairs & Integration: Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP, male, 27)
Agriculture: Andrä Rupprechter (ÖVP, male, 49)
Economy & Science: Reinhold Mitterlehner (ÖVP, male, 58)
Interior: Johanna Mikl-Leitner (ÖVP, female, 49)
Social Affairs: Rudolf Hundstorfer (SPÖ, male, 63)
Education & Women: Gabriele Heinisch-Hosek (SPÖ, female, 52)
Infrastructure: Doris Bures (SPÖ, female, 51)
Defence: Gerald Klug (SPÖ, male, 45)
Health: Alois Stöger (SPÖ, male, 53)
Special tasks/Head of the Chancellor’s Office: Josef Ostermayer (SPÖ, male, 52)

Germany
Chancellor: Angela Merkel (CDU, female, 59)
Deputy Chancellor/Economy & Energy: Sigmar Gabriel (SPD, male, 54)
Foreign Affairs: Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD, male, 57)
Finance: Wolfgang Schäuble (CDU, male, 71)
Interior: Thomas de Maizere (CDU, male, 59)
Defence: Ursula von der Leyen (CDU, female, 55)
Labour: Andrea Nahles (SPD, female, 43)
Health: Herrman Gröhe (CDU, male, 52)
Justice & Consumer Protection: Heiko Maas (SPD, male, 47)
Family, Youth & Pensioners: Manuela Schwesig (SPD, female, 39)
Science & Research: Johanna Wanka (CDU, female, 62)
Environment: Barbara Hendricks (SPD, female, 61)
Infrastructure & Internet: Alexander Dobrindt (CSU, male, 43)
Foreign Aid: Gerd Müller (CSU, male, 58)
Agriculture: Hans-Peter Friedrich (CSU, male, 56)
Special tasks/Head of the Chancellor’s Office: Peter Altmeier (CDU, male, 55)