The Green Revolution?

Glawischnig will need a firm hand to make the party compelling again

News | Christian Cummins | November 2008

New Green Party leader Eva Glawischnig (Photo: Die Grünen)

Green-tinted prosecco was being handed the Remise, a huge converted factory on the banks of the Danube, where party members awaited the results of the Sept. 28 general election. The prosecco looked suspiciously flat, and when, at 5pm sharp, the results were announced on the big screen, it seemed rather symbolic.

The Greens had been hoping to come in 3rd. Now, with only around 10% of the vote, they were staring down the barrel at 5th place, behind the right-wing Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the BZÖ. The biggest clap of the night was reserved for the electoral humiliation of the centrist ÖVP, the party that had called for the early election. As all hope of a positive result for the Greens faded, their faithful supporters in the Remise were left with only Schadenfreude at the more significant losses suffered by the governing grand coalition.

On these occasions, we journalists become like vultures. I queued, microphone in hand, waiting for my turn to speak to Greens’ parliamentarian Ulrike Lunacek, who was putting on a determined face as she batted away questions about blame and imminent changes in the party leadership.

"I’d like to remind you that we usually gain another seat in parliament when the postal votes are finally counted," she said with a forced smile.

To be fair Lunacek’s prophesy was fulfilled. The Greens did gain an extra seat via the postal system, taking their total up to 20, but that boost was merely cosmetic. When the final vote was counted, the party that had gone into the elections as the third strongest party in parliament had failed to overtake the BZÖ in the tight race for 4th place.

The Green slice of the parliamentary cake had slimmed down to a size to please even the strictest of dieticians.  It was a bitter pill to swallow – especially since, only a few weeks before the Election Day, polls had been predicting the Greens might carry away as much as 15% of the vote. The country had moved to the right, and the Greens backwards.

For Lunacek, the evening of Sept. 28 was a time for brave words and pledges of solidarity. She described the national result as "OK." It seemed to sum up the whole effort which, in direct comparison to the energetic and fiery campaigns of the rightist parties, came across as tepid and, at times, even timid.

"We did have emotions," insisted Lunacek, pointing to the enthusiastic applause that, she said, had accompanied their rallies. "But we deal in reasoned arguments. It’s simply a fact that we aren’t populists."

In a campaign where the theme of immigration was dangerously oversimplified and misrepresented, and the economy was reduced to a series of "Wahlzuckerl" – or election sweeteners – not being populist may well be something to be proud of.

Not being popular is, of course, not.  And the Greens were sitting on a very popular theme – an unprecedented public interest in the fight against climate change. In the two years since the last general election there had been a plethora of special broadcasts on the subject on state television and, as an issue, it had featured regularly in the evening news and daily papers.

With such a green issue so prominent in the media, how did the Greens fail to cash in? Lunacek suggested future election campaigns would have to treat such big subjects in a less intellectual and abstract way and instead, really hone in on what they would actually mean for the average Austrian:

"We have to break down complicated issues like climate change and dependency on oil and gas to the needs of the people," she said.

But it was obvious to everyone under the high-vaulted roof of the Remise that firm action was needed to make the Green’s appealing again.  Even during the campaign, many critics had suggested that long-time party leader, 64-year-old economics professor Alexander Van der Bellen, had seemed uninspired and even lethargic in his 4th national campaign. Tellingly, many young voters had apparently told the pollsters that their image of the man with the grey scraggy beard, well worn suits and nicotine stained teeth was one of a "grumpy granddad." Voters unhappy with the bickering and inefficiency of the grand coalition between the centrist Social Democrats and People’s Party had looked to right, instead of left, to express their discontent. The Greens (or "The Green Alternative," to use their full name) are a party born out of the social movements of the 1970s and 1980s. And yet in 2008, it seems, they are no longer seen as a party of protest.

On election night, Lunacek refused to be drawn into any knife-sharpening, and when Van der Bellen arrived at the Remise, he got a defiantly enthusiastic reception from party loyalists. But in the coming days, when the election results were analyzed, the writing would be on the wall. Not only was the Greens’ protest persona in tatters, but also their image as a home for young voters. A full 43% of the under 30s in Austria had voted for the far right. The Greens had been routed on own turf, and sent off to the political "happy hunting ground." The time had surely come to react.

Within a week the change came. On Oct. 3, the 39-year old Carinthian Eva Glawischnig was chosen by the party elite to replace Van der Bellen, a proposal that was confirmed by the base at a party conference three weeks later.  There was immediately grumbling from other prominent Greens that this was hardly the revolution the party needed. Glawischnig, who made an early name for herself as a spokesperson for the ecologist pressure group Global 2000, had long been deputy to Van der Bellen. This was very much a succession, not a revolution.

But optically, at least, the change was profound – and you’ll forgive me for dwelling on the impact of the superficial, given that many admitted voting for the right-wing Freedom Party’s Heinz-Christian Strache because he had "beautiful eyes." Glawischnig has those too, and more – like a pair of glacial lakes complemented by Alpine cheekbones, jet-black hair and porcelain skin. She is nothing if not photogenic. Moreover, married to the former sports star and current television star Volker Piesczek, she is no stranger to the sort of celebrity gatherings that Van der Bellen eschewed. If the latter exuded the faithful comfort of a pair of well-worn slippers, Eva Glawischnig oozes with the undeniable glamour of stiletto heels.

Whether her nomination was groundbreaking or not, it has already created a welcome buzz of excitement around the Greens. The room was so full at her first post-nomination press conference that journalists were forced to huddle together while the staff searched for  extra chairs. Almost an hour into the conference, reporters hands were still going up, a time when in the days of Van der Bellen, we would have been long since gathered around the coffee and free biscuits.

Glawischnig had warm words for her predecessor, who had led the party from a fringe group polling less than 5% to one where 10% was a disappointment. But, once the tribute had been paid, she was free to draw a line between her mentor and the fresh new era she hoped to usher in, saying she would like to "do a lot of things differently, and some better."

Her first priority, she said, was to win back young voters. The party was seen as establishment rather than alternative, she admitted, too cerebral and too remote. The Greens of the future would move beyond the press, and even the Internet, and spend a lot more time face to face.

While politicians in the USA fight over Joe the Plumber, it seems that Glawischnig has Daisy the Dancer in her sights, announcing that Austrian discos would make a perfect hunting ground. Not that the new Greens leader is headed for the strobe-light:

"I have a young family," she laughed. "Someone else can take on that job!"

So the Greens have a youthful and dynamic face; but they might do well to heed the warning of the city councilor  Christoph Chorherr. In a post-election interview with the Austrian daily Die Presse, he stressed that it would be a folly to think that the Greens had lost because of the image of Van der Bellen. If the party wants a clearer profile, they would have to show more courage, to identify and address problems in integration, in the schools and at the work place. They would have to find clear words on issues like youth violence.

The Greens have always been seen as the "nice" party; Glawischnig will now have to prove they can also be relevant.

Other articles from this issue