Gusi Gets to Work

With the Budget Agreed, the New Coalition Begins to Govern in Earnest

Opinion | Dardis McNamee, Meinrad Knapp | March 2007

When the new Austrian chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer finished his second month as head of the government, his record was at best mixed. It wasn’t until, suddenly, on March 1, the coalition was able to agree on a budget, that the wind began to change.

He started off as the chancellor of broken promises. University tuition fees was one of the first hot topics. During his election campaign Gusenbauer promised to cancel the fees for the  public universities; after the election, this turned out to be harder than he though and it looked as though he would not be able to keep his promise. Students started to demonstrate, Gusenbauer`s image was damaged.

Then came HC Strache, the leader of the right wing FPÖ party, famous for his Xenophobic election campaigns. Photos appeared showing the young Strache engaged in so-called  Wehrsportübungen – war games – wearing a military uniform and playing around with weapons on maneuvers in the woods. Strache claimed he was just playing paintball, but nobody really believed him. That Strache was well connected in the right wing scene was no surprise.

The surprise was Gusenbauer`s answer: He did not condemn the  action. Far from it Gusenbauer defended Strache by calling it puerility – youthful excess. He clearly wasn’t ready to make enemies. The Social Democrats, Gusenbauers own colleagues, were furious.

"Hardly a day, hardly a week, went by without some provocation, some mutual interference maneuvers or open conflict. Everything from the financing of elder care, to environmental protection, taxes or the relief for the shortage of skilled workers – quarrels and partisan animosity shaped the picture," wrote Petra Stuiber in Der Standard.

Some of this was just bad luck, and some were willing to cut him some slack because he was new in the job. But the real disappointment was that Gusenbauer seemed to be letting chances slip away, chances to position himself as a head of government that stood on high moral ground.

Until now: The coalition delivered a two-year budget almost universally judged competent. And even on time. After just over a week of negotiations, without a lot of fuss, Gusenbauer and Finance Minister Wilhelm Molterer have taken the first important step at restoring confidence that the coalition may be able to govern after all.

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