Demotion of democracy: Austria

Demotion of democracy: Austria

In light of the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, Katie Costello discusses the future of democracy in Austria.

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Image: Pixbay.com

Firmly settled in liberal western Europe, democracy may feel like a well-established norm for Austria, but despite its rejection of an extremist, and arguably more autocratic, Presidential candidate in December, democracy has not always been Austria’s choice.

Now in its Second Republic – after the first ended with the welcoming of Hitler in 1938 – Austria remained a monarchy until the end of the First World War. Austria may have flirted with the idea of Prime Ministers, but the Kaiser still retained ultimate power and voting was not widespread until the 20th century. The monarchy may have been dissolved since 1918, but in the tourist shops of Vienna, the Habsburgs are still relevant and clearly still lucrative. Franz Joseph and his wife Sissi have become major cultural icons, with images of them plastered on tea towels and fridge magnets across the city. Despite his huge cultural reach, Franz Josef governed the Austrian Empire in an era of decline. Under his rule there were major rebellions, the Empire was forced to become a dual monarchy with Hungary and eventually, unrest within his Kingdom led to the First World War and the end of the monarchy itself.

Freedom, liberalism and democracy were rejected in favour of protectionism

And yet the legend of Franz Joseph lives on. Like many dictators, Franz Joseph used public areas to celebrate himself. Much of Vienna was expanded and rebuilt under his rule and he personally contributed to some of its most famous sections. He built two great museums, both adorned with his name. One of Franz Joseph’s new museums was for art and the other for natural science with the two imposing imperial structures facing each other on a square named after another Habsburg ruler, Maria Theresia. Franz Joseph’s legacy in Vienna stretched further. He rebuilt the Opera and the Hofburg, the imperial palace, which would later be the backdrop to Hitler’s entrance to Vienna. The Kaiser created a cult which still exists to this day. The imperial style of the capital city is synonymous with a failing dictator. But its relevance today is immense. Vienna attracts over 4.5 million visitors a year, making up around a fifth of total Austrian tourism.

As the monarchy was dissolved at the end of the First World War, the Kaiserreich relics were reduced to tourist attractions. But Austria’s road to democracy was still to encounter some demagogues.

The first few years of Austrian democracy were reasonably successful. Parties were created and coalitions were formed. However, by the 1930s Austrian voters had tired of middle-ground democracy and began to turn to more autocratic leaders. Engelbert Dollfuss was elected as the majority leader of a new conservative coalition. Dollfuss engaged in many dictatorial-like activities, crushing rebellions, banning parties and relying on support from other dictatorships, namely Mussolini’s fascist regime in Italy. He relied on identity politics, appealing to Austria’s Catholic roots to distinguish the country from its German neighbours. But even this did not calm a growing disillusionment amongst the Austrian people. The Austrian Nazi party were gathering pace and even Dollfuss’s catholicised version of the swastika could not sate the appetite of an angry interwar Austria.

The last real dictator, Adolf Hitler. It’s now accepted that the Anschluss of 1938 was desired by the majority of Austrians. For years Austrians argued that they were victims of the Nazis, occupied as the French or Dutch were. Yet footage of cheering Austrians welcoming Hitler and forcing Viennese Jews to scrub the streets with their toothbrushes debunked the victimhood myth. Hitler offered them security and identity, in return for policies filled with hate and persecution of minorities. Freedom, liberalism and democracy were rejected in favour of protectionism and nationalism.

It all sounds uncomfortably familiar. The FPÖs Norbert Hofer stood on a platform of isolationism. Retreat from the EU, reduction in immigration and closer unity with other “Germanic people”.

So has Austria’s patchy history with democracy meant it’s at risk of falling into dictatorship again? Probably not. For one thing Hofer didn’t get into power. Despite the election being run twice due to his complaints over dodgy glue on the postal vote envelopes, the independent Alexander Van der Bellen sealed victory in the vote. Unlike in the First Republic, democracy is now very much the norm. Austria has its own identity, increasingly forged over the last 60 years, meaning that Hofer’s German nationalist outlook would provoke controversy from Austrian’s pride to distinguish themselves from their bigger and more powerful neighbour.

Austrians are not going to give up on their political system without a fight

And Austrians have proved they’re not going to give up on their political system without a fight. Last year’s dramatic presidential election led to widespread political engagement in the country. Marches were held for, in the words of Van der Bellen, “the reputation of Austria”. In February Hofer’s FPÖ party held its ball in Vienna, accompanied by the annual protest march against the party and its principles. There is a considerable counter-movement to the current bend towards the extremes.

However, it is worth remembering that Hofer only narrowly lost, and Austria is far more conservative than its German cousins. The “Willkommenskultur” towards the refugees crossing into Germany has been far less enthusiastic from the Austrians, and the Schengen zone has broken down across many of Austria’s borders.

But at the moment, all of this is being kept at bay. On the whole, Austria is a centrist country, ruled by two parties: centre left and centre right. Normally they govern together in coalition, forming a “Groβe Koalition” and swapping majority power and leadership roles. It’s centrist, it’s safe, it’s nice and boring, which should all keep the autocrats out and keep democracy going.

What’s illegal in North Korea?

Drinking alcohol:  A North Korean officer was executed for disrespecting late Kim Jong-il by drinking alcohol during the mourning period.

Watching TV: Last year North Korea reportedly publicly executed 80 people for watching South Korean TV.

Driving: Only state officials are allowed to own a car.

Watching porn: Viewing or selling porn is punishable by death.

Political dissatisfaction: Those who criticise the regime are sent to political prison camps.

International Democratic Rankings: The Top Three

Data found in World Democracy Index 2016

1. Norway is ranked first in the World Democratic Index,  scoring 9.93/10.
2. Iceland is currently ranked second, rising one place from 2015.
3. Sweden is ranked third, scoring fully on a supportive democratic political culture.

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