Vienna coalition a reason to abstain from backing FPÖ, says Häupl

Viennese Mayor Michael Häupl has said his party’s cooperation with the Greens is a “reasonable alternative offer” to voters who consider backing right-wingers.

The head of the Viennese branch of the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) told the Kurier today (Thurs) people should think about what else might be possible in Austria apart from a coalition between the SPÖ and the People’s Party (ÖVP). A government formed by these two parties has been in office since 2007. It succeeded a coalition between the ÖVP and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) which was founded by late Freedom Party (FPÖ) leader Jörg Haider in April 2005.

Häupl explained many people he had met in the streets were assuring him they did not want a coalition in which Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ played a role. The mayor of Vienna added that these citizens were also telling him that many actions of the federal SPÖ-ÖVP administration were annoying them. Häupl identified the disputed education sector reform and changes of the healthcare system as “major topics where standstill is obvious.” He concluded: “We (the Viennese SPÖ-Greens government) want to be seen as a sensible alternative (to a government including the FPÖ).”

The FPÖ – currently rocked by allegations that several former top tier members may be entangled into serious corruption scandals – is seen around 27 per cent in the latest opinion polls. Researcher Karmasin found in a poll for this week’s edition of magazine profil that the right-wing party is only one percentage point down on the SPÖ. The FPÖ did better than had been predicted in numerous elections in the past as many of its voters are hesitant to declare their support, even in anonymous surveys. The ÖVP would claim 23 per cent of the vote if Austrians were asked to elect a federal parliament next Sunday. The Greens would grab 15 per cent. The BZÖ would fail to take the four per cent hurdle into parliament. It would be backed by only three per cent of voters, according to the Karmasin check.

Häupl became mayor of Vienna in 1994. Claims that he could resign soon to introduce a strong successor in good time before the next city election in 2015 were dismissed as “nonsense” by the politician who is considered as one of the most influential members of the federal SPÖ board. Asked by the Kurier whether the federal SPÖ should indicate a possible willingness to form a coalition with the Green Party ahead of the next general election in 2013, Häupl warned of various differences of the daily life of people in cities like Vienna and residents of rural areas.

The mayor of Vienna claimed “a lot is possible” for the federal SPÖ in two years’ time if the party finally said more clearly what it was standing for when it comes to hotly debated issues like taxation rates and aspects affecting the public education sector. The SPÖ wants higher taxes on assets and no reintroduction of tuition fees at universities. The ÖVP has a contrary position on both issues. The conservative party also wants to keep Gymnasium schools instead of creating one type of secondary modern school for all kids of the country. The SPÖ claims such a change would help Austria in catching up with other countries when it comes to education quality aspects. Häupl said today the SPÖ should say much clearer where its opinion differed from the points of view of its conservative coalition partner.

Häupl praised Maria Vassilakou’s Viennese Green Party for being “more reliable than the ÖVP.” The head of the Viennese department of the SPÖ admitted his judgement may have been different a few years ago. The SPÖ and the Greens teamed up in Vienna after both parties suffered losses in the city election held in October 2010. It was only the second time after World War Two (WWII) for the Viennese SPÖ to form a coalition with another party for being too weak to govern on its own. The party cooperated with the ÖVP between 1996 and 2001. Häupl told the Kurier today he had no change of mind considering a statement which caused a stir last year. The Social Democrat famously argued his decision to partner up with the Viennese Greens that he preferred feuding with them “about one street or another than about the whole education system (with the ÖVP).”

The mayor also justified the recent public service ticket price reform which could cost the city 30 million Euros a year due to a decrease of the price for annual passes from 449 to 365 Euros. “We don’t want to anger motorists. Our intention is to consider quality of life aspects and environmental concerns,” he said. Vassilakou added: “The plan is not to bring up drivers against users of public transport. (…) We want to create circumstances which make clear to the people of this city that it is clever and cheaper to leave their cars at home and take the underground instead.”

More than 360,000 annual tickets went over the counter in Vienna last year – more than ever before. The political rivals of the SPÖ and the Greens claimed that the ticket price reform would not create more interest in the services of public transport provider Wiener Linien which transports over two million passengers a day. The FPÖ warned that earnings from ticket sales would not rise while some Wiener Linien officials raised doubts that the company’s current infrastructure might not be strong enough to cope with more passengers. Some foreign traffic experts warned that cheaper annual tickets would not automatically mean less motorised traffic and more public transport usage. They said Vienna’s public transport prices were already comparably low.

The reform will come into effect next May. It will also include an increase of the price of single tickets by 20 Eurocents to two Euros. The price for the ticket will soar by another 20 Eurocents for people who buy it at machines on trams and not in advance at stations. Fare dodgers will be ordered to cough up 100 Euros from May 2012 instead of the current 70 Euros. “We will be able to cope with the additional demand of 30 million Euros,” Vassilakou told the Kurier about the controversial reform. Her party promised ahead of last year’s election to lower the price for an annual ticket to 100 Euros if it became part of a government coalition. The Greens also vowed to fight for free usage of trams, buses and U-Bahn trains for jobless people.

SPÖ Financial Affairs City Councillor Renate Brauner said last month the city planned to spend 11.83 billion Euros on healthcare, public transport, labour market initiatives, infrastructure and other issues next year. Vienna will take in 11.43 billion Euros at the same time, she added. Such revenues and spending would lead to a further rise of debts of the financially struggling city which splashes out infamously high amounts on promotion and ads in tabloid newspapers which backed its ideas and concepts.

Speaking about the first year of cooperating with Häupl’s SPÖ, Vassilakou told the Kurier today that the government did not only tackle minor issues and topics easy to deal with but complex concerns such as health sector problems. The vice mayor emphasised that the coalition agreed on higher financial support for poor and unemployed people with children.

Häupl stressed that the coalition agreed on prohibiting slot machine gambling in pubs and bars in Vienna despite the different opinion of the board of his party. SPÖ Vienna officials opposed the change of regulations as it would mean a decline of earnings from taxes. However, some district organisations of the Social Democrats convinced party leaders that fighting compulsive gambling was of more importance. The Greens agreed with the rebellious SPÖ members from the start. Häupl said today the federal government was now pressurised to come up with a solution considering gambling on the internet.

Häupl and Vassilakou underlined today they were certain that their coalition would not collapse ahead of the next city parliament election despite immense criticism coming from the ÖVP and the FPÖ which labelled the Greens as “a bunch of left-extremist anarchists”.

The head of the Viennese branch of the Austrian Green Party revealed speaking to the Kurier that the city government would start checking the language skills of immigrant teens next year. “Our goal is that every child speaks sufficient German to follow lectures when they start school,” Vassilakou said. Häupl explained: “We must put more attention on youngsters who settle in Vienna to join their families. Many have no school degrees and only a poor knowledge of German. This increases the risk that they become criminals. (…) Our message is: stick to the rules, learn the language and build careers – or your ‘careers’ will get you in jail.”

Vienna has the highest rates of people with migratory background in Austria. The government of the city reacted to the FPÖ’s claims that foreigners were living in so-called parallel societies as they were unwilling to integrate by sending out more social workers and young people organising games for bored kids hanging around in public parks.

The SPÖ-Greens coalition also plans to set up more surveillance camera systems at council houses. The SPÖ considers the initiative, which started in 2008 when it ruled the city without coalition partners, as a full success. SPÖ Vienna Housing Councillor Michael Ludwig said in September that 2,769 camera systems had been installed at the so-called Gemeindebau housing estates in the past three years. The Social Democrat revealed that his party intended to fix an additional 100 cameras in the near future.

Ludwig claimed that especially the number of cases of wilful damage to property shrank significantly in areas now monitored by the police with the help of cameras. Theft rates and graffiti spraying incidents declined as well thanks to his party’s initiative, he added.

Ludwig made clear last month that Vienna would not follow the example of Carinthia and ask foreigners interested in subsidised flats to prove “sufficient” German skills. The change of regulations agreed upon by the province’s coalition of the Carinthian Freedom Party (FPK) and the ÖVP came into effect on 1 November. The new law means immigrants will have to speak German on A2 level based on the internationally accepted foreign language skills chart. A similar draft bill was rejected by juridical experts in Upper Austria after a committee considered it as discriminatory, according to a report by the Kurier.

The FPK said it considered a basic knowledge of German as “essential for a good coexistence and successful integration.” Ludwig reacted by announcing that “Vienna chose to take a different path.” Ludwig argued that speaking the same language was an important but not the only factor for living together in harmony. Speaking to the Kurier, he called the Carinthian agreement “unconstitutional”. He claimed that the stricter rules in the province “will avoid successful integration.”