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2004-04-26

A minor readjustment 

Due to the result of the election on 25 April 2004, the next Austrian president will be Heinz Fischer, who succeeds Thomas Klestil. What will change?

First, a review of the incumbent. Klestil cut a very poor figure in yesterday's TV reports, in which he looked ill and frail, and was mentioned mainly for the embarrassment of having forgotten his electoral card at home - he needed to appeal to a politician's privilege to be able to accomplish even the primitive democratic act of voting. Twelve years ago, he had promised to the electorate to be a strong and dynamic president who would check the power of the elected government - a promise on which he delivered little, maybe due to a certain lack of political skillfulness, as one analyst pointed out yesterday. He also became the unfortunate victim of a then rather popular belief that the role of the federal president was much more powerful in the constitution than how it had been interpreted by the previous presidents. Klestil's attempts in this direction quickly showed that in the reality of the political system, a president who would exercise his stronger constitutional rights would only provoke a constitutional crisis, which would damage himself before anyone else. Originally nominated by the conservative party, Klestil oversaw the rise of the conservatives to become the party of the chancellor, and then the strongest party in parliament. Paradoxically, he himself got more and more estranged from his fellow conservatives, and in the end he and chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel were antagonistic figures, where Klestil represented the traditional Austrian political approach of consensus and compromise, and Schüssel the approach of a fast moving, controversial style of government. Klestil looked oldfashioned but oddly compassionate (oddly because he was never a socially inspired politician), Schüssel looked modern if cold. This made Klestil a rather awkward figure during his last years in office.

Some of what Heinz Fischer, and even more so his social-democratic campaign team, declared after yesterday's 52.4% win seems to indicate a danger that Fischer will enter the presidency in the very same antagonistic relationship with the chancellor in which Klestil left it. Cold but efficient chancellor - socially compassionate but ineffective president. Fischer will naturally try to appeal to the social conscience of the nation, and he is famous for his style of dialog and compromise. Fischer has hinted that the solution he sees to this potential problem is that his interpretation of the office will be much more modest than Klestil's, that he will not seek conflict with the goverment on the level of specific policies or even political style - although the social-democratic party will certainly hope that he does just that.

One change will certainly be that Fischer will be more credible as an advocate of the weak and disadvantaged than Klestil, the career diplomat, ever was. Whether this will have noticeable effects on the political climate of the country is one of the most interesting open questions. Fischer will have difficulty in avoiding 'false friends' from the ranks of the left opposition, who will be all too ready to exaggerate every word of warning and calls to reflection that Fischer may utter, and try to use them as ammunition in their daily infight with the government. This would risk to sabotage the emergence of an impartial moral authority attributed to president Fischer - yet this kind of authoritative stature is the main critical success factor for his desired style of presidency. It is not coincidental that Fischer stressed repeatedly his wish to gain the support of 70-80% of the population within one year.

The rest is unknown. Will Fischer find words that stick to memory, and that introduce new nuances into the political process of this country? Will he be able to identify the topics of the future, and will he have something modern and new to say about them? The good thing about Fischer is that he is intelligent, he is well-read, he has the intellectual tools. To use them well is his task.


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