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Lean Times for the Austrian Greens

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Default profile picture F.J. O'Flaherty

While the Green Party could soon form part of a new coalition government in Germany, its Austrian counterpart is currently experiencing some tough times. Polls predict that the party may not exceed the 4% threshold required to enter parliament in Austria - even though the party's former chairman was elected President of Austria only last year. What has happened?

Equality, social justice and a change in energy policy: once again, the Austrian Greens' areas of focus in this year's national elections (taking place on 15th October) do not represent much of a departure from the their usual programme of policies. These typical Green campaign issues speak to young, well-educated people in particular. Gerhard, a medicine student at the Medical University of Vienna, is someone who agrees with the party's focus. "In terms of policy content, the Greens are still the party I have the best impression of," the 25-year old says. On the other hand, he continues, the party's public performance leaves a lot to be desired.

While Alexander Van der Bellen was head of the party (1997-2008), support for the Greens increased from just under 5% to 11%; his successor, Eva Glawischnig, was able to secure almost 13% of the popular vote in 2013. When, running as an independent candidate, Van der Bellen won the Austrian presedential election in 2016, his victory was associated with his former party, particularly outside Austria. His election was considered a strong signal following Brexit and Trump's election. But, just a few months later, this green and ideal world began to shake: a public dispute between the youth wing of the party and the party leadership ended with the Young Greens being thrown out of the party. Parts of this organisation have chosen a new alliance with the Communist Party, while the establishment of a new youth organisation for the Greens is already in progress. 

Wanted: Powers of Persuasion

This first internal squabble was followed by the unexpected resignation, in May, of the Greens' leader Eva Glawischnig. Her decision, taken for health reasons, led to the party dividing its leadership into three parts. Ulrika Lunacek, a Member of the European Parliament, and the Tyrol state politician Ingrid Felip took over as the top candidate and the party spokesperson respectively (these are the significant positions for the election). Although the Greens were explicit about their desire not to choose a single party leader, the party's internal politics has not lead to higher popularity: "It seemed that the dual leadership was intended to hide how disorganised the party seemed after Glawischnig's resignation," says Gerhard about the division of roles. To score points with voters, a party needs a compelling, appealing person at the helm. These are not characteristics the new party leader Lunacek has brought to the role - particularly at the beginning.

In order to achieve the goal which the Greens have set themselves - to achieve double-digit support at the election - Lunacek is going to have to do a lot of persuading. Because the current election campaign is being dominated by polarising, strong male figures like Sebastian Kurz and Heinz-Christian Strache. Lunacek, in comparison to these men, comes across as a trustworthy professor. She is someone who argues surely and logically, without deviating from her positions. It is difficult for her to drive home a message when she is faced with the rhetoric and populism practiced by her opponents. Even those parties with similar views, such Chancellor Christian Kern's Social Democrats, are presenting themselves more as opponents than possible coalition partners. Them doing so could lead, according to political observers, to many Green voters considering voting for the Social Democrats to prevent a right-leaning coalition of the Austrian People's Party and the Freedom Party of Austria.

Homemade Competition

It is homemade competition, rather than pressure from the right, that is especially threatening to the Greens' survival as a party of parliament. Peter Pilz, who made a name for himself beyond the Greens' traditional supporters as a critical voice in the Austrian Parliament, lost the internal runoff vote for fourth place on the party's list for the election. He promptly left the party (three months before the election) to establish his own movement. This could cost the Greens some votes, as Pilz is not just a founding member of the party and an initiator of several parliamentary committees of inquiry - he is also critical of Islam, which is something he wants to utilise to lure Freedom Party voters, for example.

"I don't think Pilz can win votes from the Freedom Party. But, by going his own way, he could cost the Greens their place in Parliament," reckons Gerhard. He is still (like almost one in four Austrians) undecided about who should get his vote in two weeks' time. But, should it be the Greens that he chooses in the end, Gerhard says that his vote would be a vote to keep the Greens in Parliament, more than anything else. "But I would be marking that cross with some regret, because, to me, they no longer seem to be a party that is in good working order."

Even had the various incidents mentioned here not happened, the Greens would have found this year that the other parties are no easy opponents. That's because, for months now, the lead candidates of the three strongest Austrian parties have been exploiting a sad fact that was underlined in Germany last week: negative, right-wing messages and the image of party leaders have a much greater impact on voters than policy content. It speaks for the Greens' integrity that they are not taking part in this politics of posturing. But, lacking alternative strategies or approaches, they have not thus far been able to win over any new voters. Traditional Green voters now have doubts about the party - because of poor organisation and management within the party - and this could have grave consequences at the coming election. Should the election forecasts prove correct, the Greens would secure a place in Parliament. But they would secure only 4-6% of the vote, as it did in the early days of Van der Bellen's tenure. One can only hope that, following an expulsion from the party, several resignations and poor figures in the opinion polls, there is now at least cause to rethink the party's internal structures. 

Translated from Auf keinen grünen Zweig gekommen