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European Diary: Vienna

December 22, 2010

The cafe is smokey, since the small ones get to opt out of the anti-smoking edict and there are international newspapers on wooden frames and the one waiter is in long apron. A man identified as a former foreign secretary shuffles by.

My companion and I talk about the fate of the Austrian Social Democrats, once the Socialists, and one of the world’s most successful parties of the democratic left. No, with the Swedes and the Germans the most serious and admirable and successful. In government in coalition from 1945 to 1999, it did what the holy texts said the organized working class wanted and needed : nationalized big industry, spread social security and gave worker representatives power on boards.

Then it all fell apart. In 1983-4 the steel industry had to be privatized to become competitive. A wave of anti-immigrant feeling surged as it was alleged newly arrived refugees were exploiting the generous benefits. There were scandals about the high pay of worker reps and widespread jobs for the boys, monstrously high pay for union secretaries.

The socialist dream vanished, the party’s vote contracted. Workers were drawn to right-wing populists like Haider – there are now two right wing populist parties – and the Social Democrats are seen as middle class but hey, says my contact, the working class have shrunk and left us. He says:

“I know a retired plumber with a flat in Vienna and a house in the country . He has a yacht in Croatia. He considers himself a victim of globalization.”

Immigration is the biggest issue shifting votes.

So the grand old party that once had 45 percent of electoral support and drew on a fine legacy of fighting totalitarians and building workers’ apartments in a capital city where all public transport would close to celebrate May 1 is being squeezed by Greens on the left and the populist anti-immigrant forces on the right.

Not as bad as Germany where Greens are polling 25 percent and the Social Democrats are just behind them at 23 to 24. Germany has a leftwing populist party, the Linkers, as well.

More and more it’s clear that parties of the democratic left had their most influence shaping policies in the period between the war and the oil price shock of the 70s. This state-sector growth was not going to continue. It had reached its limit and so had manufacturing and mining. The parties formed in the late 19th century to reflect these interests edged into some kind of decline, having to accept responsibility for winding back now unaffordable programs and policies they had once existed to promote.

Out into the fresh air and lightly falling snow, an imperial capital for a small republic where the line of block-like early 20th century apartments can be broken by a baroque city palace with caryatids and decorated pediments. The smoke of the cafe was not offensive. I think of it as bit of nostalgia, a reminder of a lost world.

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