The outcome of the legislative elections in Austria will have repercussions on different levels. A look both into the national and European level unveils what is at stake for LGBTI rights.
As of today, the offices of The Green Party in the Austrian National Council are empty; more than 100 former Green employees are out of a job. On the 15th of October the Greens were about 10,160 votes short of clearing the four per cent hurdle – a first in the party’s history since their founding in 1986.
To understand the dramatic decline and its political aftermath one needs to take a closer look at how the election debacle could have possibly unfolded.
The period before the elections had been marked by scandals, internal squabbles and a nerve-racking electoral campaign. From the Pyrrhic victory of the lengthy presidential elections that put former Green Party leader Alexander Van der Bellen at the head of the country (which left the party with a gaping hole of three million Euros in their budget), over the overnight surprise resignation of the party’s leader Eva Glawischnig in May, to the scandal and exclusion of the party’s youth branch, finally culminating in the departure and setting up of a competitive campaign by one of the party's founding members, the Greens have seen it all lately.
After the initial confusion following Glawischnig's resignation the party elected the high-profile duo Ingrid Felipe and Ulrike Lunacek as new Party leader and leading candidate. When entering the race, Ulrike Lunacek was universally acclaimed as an experienced campaigner that kept out of internal disputes, and who had already led the party to its best results in a European election. However, a look at opinion polls since the end of 2016 quickly showed that the party’s ascent into double-digit heights was only for a short duration.
Despite a high voter turnout of 80 per cent the Greens have fallen victim to the erosion of durable party affiliations. Around one million voters were said to have still been undecided by Election Day. The newly formed Liste Pilz, for instance, instantly secured enough votes to move into Parliament. The electoral list was led by former Green Peter Pilz, who split from his party after internal disputes over his fourth place on the party’s electoral list. Shortly after the elections Pilz resigned and quit parliament over sexual harassment allegations.
In spite of fierce internal discussion, the party remained indecisive on substantial points. Former supporters of the Greens felt that the party failed to make clear what it actually stood for. On the occasion of the party's 30th birthday, only 22 per cent of voters interviewed by a market research institute felt that the party had a clear plan for the country’s future.
The disappointment and disillusionment both on the side of the party and its electorate is now equally as big. Only nine months have passed since the Greens’ sweetest success to date and their bitter defeat. As one former Green voter put it after the election: “If I had known that there was a danger of them not entering the National Council, I would have voted for the party again.”
Change of political landscape
Nonetheless, the attempt to explain the disappearance of the Green Party from the national political landscape inevitably leads to a debate regarding political discussion culture and opinion forming in an age of social media. There, fractures in today’s society become particularly visible and reach their culmination point in unfiltered discussion threads where supposed loci of truth turn into refuges of mistrust and accusations. In the run-up to national elections and in times of campaign, the emanating impact of an unguided discussion culture becomes even more charged. Unlike soft-spoken politicians such as Ulrike Lunacek, populist parties such as the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) virtuously play the keys of the sensitivities of ‘ordinary’ citizens and use the internet skilfully for campaign purposes.
However, to only scapegoat the FPÖ for the current political climate would fail out to acknowledge the significant swing to the right by the country’s two long-established parties.
The Social Democratic Party of Austria’s (SPÖ) announcement in June this year to refrain from its three decade long ban on allying with the extreme right contributed considerably to the normalisation of the latter. In 2004, the SPÖ issued a decision at a party congress not to enter into coalition with the FPÖ. Formally this decision is still valid but interestingly the Social Democrats have been ruling for over two years now together with the right wing 'party non grata' at regional level in the state Burgenland.
Less surprising was the conservative camp’s swing to the right under its newly elected leader and foreign minister Sebastian Kurz. When Kurz took control of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) in May and called for a snap election, the party’s polls skyrocketed to over thirty per cent. Kurz’s hard stance on immigration issues and echoing of the far right’s xenophobic campaign very likely secured him the next chancellorship. Coalition talks between the ÖVP and FPÖ have already officially kicked off and first agreements on committing to the European Union’s (EU) budget discipline and cuts in migrants’ welfare benefits have already been reached.
Considering the populist wind of change currently blowing through Europe, it is very unlikely that the far right’s probable participation in government will trigger the same ‘pariah state’ treatment as it used to in the early 2000s. Then, the ÖVP formed for the first time a controversial coalition government with the far right FPÖ. As a result, the EU-14 excluded Austria from their meetings and shunned the country diplomatically. The inflicted sanctions turned out to be less effective than expected and were lifted after a six month period. The so-called ‘Haider affair’ made its way into article 7 of the Nice Treaty and sets the ground on how the EU should react when "a clear danger exists of a Member State committing a serious breach of fundamental rights".
The conclusion that the legislative elections merely result in a change of the political landscape in Austria would be an understatement. Considering the election outcomes for the right conservative ÖVP (31. 4%) and the far right FPÖ (25.9%), Austrian politics has undergone a major shift to the political right. This is severely alarming for political and societal minorities in the country, especially for religious, ethnic, gender and sexual minorities and for human rights in general.
Populist babble, populist policy
The head of the Freedom Party Heinz-Christian Strache, who publicly called homosexuality a disease, is commonly known for his strong opposition towards LGBTI rights. At programme level, his party ignores the myriad forms of discrimination that LGBTI persons face and does not address this issue once.
Prior to the elections, the Vienna based LGBTI rights organisation Rechtskomitee Lambda sent out a questionnaire to all lead candidates of the running political parties. The questions were divided into thematic blocks of sexual orientation, gender identity and intersex persons. With a few exceptions, all parties demonstrated in their answers the will to tackle existing legal or social discrimination. The FPÖ, as the years before, did not give any answer. The ÖVP was only available for a comment on same-sex marriages by falsely claiming that opening marriage to same-sex couples would not be possible under the legal framework of the European Convention on Human Rights, and that the existing recognition of same-sex unions would already abolish all forms of discrimination.
A look over the Atlantic unveils what a populist stance on LGBTI rights could look like. Since taking up office, the current resident of the White House has already spoken publicly at an annual summit of a known anti-LGBTI group, denied transgender persons the right to serve in the military and considered someone who compared gay rights to protecting paedophilia to take up the position as chief scientist at the Department of Agriculture.
But in the new age of a 'Populist International' there is no need for the Mayflower to set sail. We have our own home-grown illiberal agitators here in the European Union. Although Europe remains one of the safest places for the LGBTI community, problems with homophobia, transphobia and discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation are still widespread.
On a national level
Ewa Dziedzic, LGBTI spokesperson for the Austrian Green Party and member of the second chamber of the Austrian Parliament, argues to “refrain from wild speculations about potential outcomes of an ÖVP-FPÖ government”. Nevertheless, she adds, “it is possible to draw from experiences made with the ÖVP-FPÖ government in the early 2000s. Back then, the parties’ deprecatory perception of women, migrants and the LGBTI community became clearly visible.” Moreover, “the remarks during the election campaign made by party leaders Sebastian Kurz and Heinz-Christian Strache, using Poland and Hungary as positive examples of governance, leave a disturbing outlook towards human and LGBTI rights.”
Let us take a closer look.
In the latest Rainbow Europe report Austria ranked under the top 15 out of 49 countries. In the Austrian society reigns a widespread acceptance of the LGBTI community but still most of the country’s progress had to be fought and won in courtrooms. In its European wide annual review ILGA Europe sees a need for action in the areas of marriage equality and discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and sex characteristics when accessing goods and services.
Austria is, together with Italy and Greece one of the last three countries of the EU-15 to not allow same-sex marriages. Under the coming coalition full LGBTI equality is not expected to become a reality. Despite the rather unpromising perspective on legalizing same-sex marriage, the registered partnership, which has been legal in Austria since the beginning of 2010, will most likely not be overturned by an ÖVP-FPÖ government. But even without any interference from the Executive’s side, progress is imminent. On 12 October 2017, the Constitutional Court announced an ex officio examination of the existing legal provisions; as a result the abolition of registered partnerships can be expected.
Nevertheless, one major challenge would be a potential crackdown on Austria’s assembly rights. As Lui Fidelsberger, president of Homosexual Initiative Vienna forewarns, an ÖVP-FPÖ government might implement a law which would impose severe restrictions on public assemblies. Additionally, the ÖVP plans to require one individual who is personally legally responsible, in case of any property damage or criminal offense committed over the course of the entire demonstration. This legislative push is capable of having a chilling effect on activists’ right to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful protest. Apart from not only fundamentally restraining civil society as a whole, it would most explicitly affect the annual rainbow parade in Vienna, one of the cornerstones of the LGBTI movement in Austria. Even if a targeted attack cannot be assumed, the consequences on the community will be deemed acceptable collateral damage.
Apart from additional constraints against assembly rights, it remains to be seen if the changing political climate in Austria will simultaneously entail a shift in the public discourse and open debate culture. The rhetoric of parts of the ÖVP is characterized by populist simplification, deliberate provocation and over-generalization. This tendency is by far exceeded by the FPÖ and its Party leader Strache, and particularly dangerous with regard to Strache’s comments on homosexuality, as mentioned above. Using such language is not only a cynical, and likewise efficient, strategy to stay in the spotlight of media coverage, but also pushes the boundaries for hate-speech and homophobic comments concerning what can be said in public. With people as Kurz and Strache in prominent positions, they will not only be able to determine topics of public interest at large (agenda setting), but also decisively influence opinions and the debate culture of the country. This has already become evident during the election campaign, with the ÖVP and FPÖ, setting the topic of immigration on top of the agenda as often as possible.
A major challenge for both the Green Party and the LGBTI community will be to find ways to fight the occupation of public discourse by a right wing conservative agenda. Consequently, it will be crucially important to be visible and heard, and to continue to speak up against falsehoods in order to challenge fabricated right-wing narratives.
Why blue-black is not the new Malta
“One of the most significant consequences of the Austrian general elections for LGBTI topics in the European Parliament is certainly the resignation of the former leading candidate of the Austrian Greens, Ulrike Lunacek”, states Evert Jan Jacobsen, secretary to the LGBTI Intergroup of the European Parliament. Besides serving as Vice President of the European Parliament, she has contributed a large part of her work to LGBTI topics. As the Parliament’s rapporteur on Kosovo, she linked important claims on gender equality and women’s rights to regional delegations, making her a very important figure for LGBTI issues in the EU and the Western Balkans. Moreover, she held the co-presidency of the LGBTI Intergroup in the European Parliament, contributing pro-actively to the group’s work. In short, Lunacek not only held important political functions, but was also an empowering figure and tireless inspiration on the European stage.
Notwithstanding, Greens and LGBTI activists in the EU are not weakened but rather have taken a grounded and firm stance. Ulrike Lunacek’s vacancy as co-president of the LGBTI Intergroup will be taken over by Terry Reintke, a Green MEP from Germany who is working on feminism and gender equality. Furthermore, there is still strong support in the European Parliament for LGBTI topics across group boundaries. The LGBTI Intergroup is, in fact, the Parliament’s largest intergroup in numbers.
An especially urgent development in connection with the Austrian general election will be Austria’s upcoming Presidency in the Council of the European Union during the second term of 2018. Apart from managing administrative matters and mediating internal procedures, the presiding Member State also sets the political agenda of the Union.
In comparison to the Maltese Presidency in the first half of 2017, who brought LGBTI rights to the top of the policy agenda by organizing a high-level ministerial conference on LGBTI equality mainstreaming, a rather different accentuation can be assumed when the alpine republic takes the lead. A close monitoring, let alone contributions to the advancement of the Anti-Discrimination Directive (a proposal by the European Commission from 2008 on equal treatment outside the labor market) will most likely not become a priority. The legislative proposal has been blocked by the Council for years. Several Member States, prominently led by Germany, allege that the text goes beyond the EU’s competences, and argue that discrimination should be dealt with at the national level.
With an ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government, it remains to be seen whether Austria will programmatically move closer to countries that are particularly hostile towards LGBTI rights, such as Poland or Hungary, or if they will take a different direction. Jacobsen, secretary to the EP’s LGBTI Intergroup adds: “If nothing bad is happening, this is perhaps the best we can hope for.”
“We need a change of course in the EU”, announced Sebastian Kurz recently with regard to Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union Speech from September this year. The 31-year old ÖVP Party leader has already sketched out his ideas for the future of the European Union. Drawing on Juncker’s White Paper, which outlines different scenarios for the future of the European Union, Kurz favors the fourth option: “Doing less more efficiently”.
In short, Kurz’s vision for the EU very much resembles his electoral campaign, merely focusing on border control, limiting migration and the need for more security measures in order to ensure freedom within the EU. Nevertheless, very much unlike his expected far right coalition partner, Kurz is a known pro-European: “For a small country such as Austria, dependent on export and at the centre of the European continent, European integration is the only option”.
While Sebastian Kurz’s commitment to the European project might be soothing at first glance, it remains to be analyzed which specific EU policies the ÖVP will put (or rather not put) on the agenda and how they will affect LGBTI issues. This is particularly critical with regard to their coalition partner FPÖ, which is outspokenly homophobic and anti-EU.
Be that as it may, the impact that one single EU Member State can have should not be overestimated. European legislative procedures are embedded in a closely-knit mesh of checks and balances, prohibiting single members to initiate major rollbacks in the governing process. Even though Austria will be holding the Presidency of the Council in the near future, and thus will be able to set the agenda, broker and coordinate legislative trialogue between the Commission, Parliament and Council, it remains to have 10 out of 352 votes in the Council. Considering that decisions in the Council usually require a qualified majority (currently 16 member states with at least 65 per cent of total EU population), Austria’s effect upon legislative procedures is rather limited. At the same time, blocking decisions in the Council only requires 4 Member States representing at least 35 per cent of the total EU population.
The Greens are out; there is no getting around it. The forthcoming period of consolidation and radical renewal will be nothing else but painful. But the party will return. For once, we find ourselves in a topsy-turvy world, where the situation is serious but not hopeless. Even if connecting factors between Alliance 90/ The Greens in neighboring Germany are marginal, the German Greens' dealing with their crashing electoral defeat in 1990 could serve as an inspiration on how a successful comeback after a long absence in Parliament can look like.
After Conchita Wurst's spectacular 2014 win of the Eurovision Song Contest, the flamboyant drag queen gave a concert at the Solidarność Esplanade outside the European Parliament. Invited on the initiative of Ulrike Lunacek, she performed her divaesque power ballad ‘Rise like a phoenix’ in front of the assembled EU dignitaries and Brussels crowd, and sent out her powerful message of love and acceptance.
A comparable event on the initiative of the incoming right wing conservative government in such a highly symbolic place at the very heart of Europe is unthinkable. Accordingly, the performance was deemed ‘political decadence’ at the time by the FPÖ head of delegation.
To finish on a more personal note, the authors of the present article wish the Austrian Greens the strength to follow down the path laid down by its incomparable diva and to “rise like a phoenix out of the ashes”. There are four upcoming regional elections to win, not to mention the legislative elections in 2022.
The authors of this article would like to express their gratitude to Ewa Dziedzic and Evert Jan Jacobsen who took part in the interviews, and Chris Meikle, Felix Hauer & Monika Baunach for their support