More (or Less) of the Same In Carinthia

“A profound uncertainty clouds Austria’s southern most province”

News | Maruska Strah | December 2008 / January 2009

Deputy provincial governor Gerhard Dörfler, Mayor Josef Jury, Dr. Jörg Haider, Mayor Josef Pleikner and Provincinal councillor Ing. Reinhart Rohr (Photo: Oberkärntner Volltreffer)

With the death of Regional Governor Jörg Haider on Oct. 11, Carinthia is not only in mourning, but is also faced with profound uncertainty about its political future. Gerhard Dörfler, elected on Oct. 23 to fill the unexpired term, is something of an unknown quantity to many, raising questions of whether he will carry on in Haider’s footsteps or bring change to Carinthia.

Now, Dörfler himself admits that the current phase is all about continuity. It’s important to maintain "the tradition that would mean something to Jörg Haider," he said in an email. "Haider was a unique and fascinating politician, and his loss was extremely painful."

But the question is not only the position of the governor, but also the future of the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), the far right party lead by Haider. Established as a splinter party from the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) in 2005, Haider was, from the get-go, the spokesman and soul of the party, and, many believed, it’s "raison d’etre."

Dörfler denies this.

"The BZÖ hopes to become even stronger and dominant now," he told The Vienna Review. "We have set the exact roles (of the party leaders), and we will continue the legacy of Jörg Haider."

Dörfler claims that the only changes that will be made in the future "can only happen with the consensus of the people."

Social Democrat candidate Reinhart Rohr, however, seems ready for change.

"After a populist social platform, centered on petty cash, there has to be a reliable, socially just and statutory program, so that anyone in need will get the help he or she really deserves," said Rohr.

"Jörg Haider had a style of permanent campaigning which discouraged solution-centered politics," Rohr claimed. "We now have the chance to solve issues in a more lasting way."

He admitted that he planned to run for governor again. At the beginning of October, the SPÖ was still fighting for a 30 % margin. "Now our goal is clear: We want to win this race!" he said. After more than ten years of strong rightist governance in Carinthia, "there are new cards on the table and the field is wide open."

Rohr knows the issues well. As a consultant in the Municipal Government of the Carinthian capital of Klagenfurt, he introduced a new approach for managing and balancing the budgets, so there is more money for investments in jobs and economy. He proposed a plan of distributing money to every community in Carinthia for two years instead of one year; the plan turned out to be so well developed, that it was proposed for all of Austria.

In fact, his model was so efficient that he won the Austrian Development Award in spring 2008 for boosting administrative efficiency from the Centre for Management Research.

Minorities are a perennial issue in Corinthian politics. However, Rohr doesn’t plan to use this as a part of his gubernatorial campaign. In his opinion the solution should come from a consensus of all stakeholders, because "polarization only works out when it’s in the hands of those with extreme positions."

One of the most heated local issues – flames Haider continually fanned in rousing his political base – has been about the use of the Slovenian language on local road signs. In one case, a local resident named Rudolf Vouk, justified violating the speed limit, explaining that he couldn’t read the sign. There were also demonstrations by students from the Slovenian high school in Klagenfurt, as the right to bilingual signs is guaranteed in Article 7 of the Austrian Constitution.

Rohr finds these conflicts counter productive; the insistence that town signage be written in German as well as Slovenian only leads to a wedge between the Slovenian minority and Carinthian Provincial Government.

Dörfler agrees: "I strongly repudiate any interference from outside," the new governor said. "Subsequent changes can only be made with the consent of the people of Carinthia." He believes that "Carinthia has exemplary minority policies," ranging from voluntary music classes to the encouragement of multilingual kindergardens.

Critics disagree: Schooling is a universal right, but minority rights in other areas – such as topography boards and recognition of Slovenian as a second official language – have chronically drawn the short stick.

According to Jože Wakounig, former president of the Slovenian National Council in Carinthia, "it is not enough for the Provincial Government to take into account only the bilingual kindergartens and music schools."

And even they don’t all function the way they should, he says, with the possible exception of the one in Ludmannsdorf and several private ones. "The only public school that works is the Slovenian high school in Klagenfurt."

However with time so short, it seems that any major shift in Carinthian politics is unlikely before the next elections in March 2009.

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