Outrage and Action: the Elders

Austria’s elders mobilise for political change

News | Dardis McNamee | November 2011

Photo: David Reali

With every day’s news, Wolfgang Radlegger was getting more and more frustrated: the Euro crisis, underfunded universities, misguided immigration policy, rampant corruption – the list of pressing issues was getting longer and longer and public decision-making ever more paralysed. Coalition members – "more interested in getting re-elected or getting rich", he said – had made unholy alliances with the boulevard press that was playing an growing role in the direction of political life.

So the former Lieutenant Governor of the Federal State of Salzburg, now managing director of Wüstenrot, sat down and wrote a book, Vom Stillstand zum Widerstand (From Paralysis to Resistance), a manifesto for action. Delivered within weeks by Viennese publisher Brandstätter Verlag, the first printing of 2,000 copies sold out almost immediately, and a second and larger edition was delivered to stores.

"I had to do something," said the former SPÖ politician over the speakerphone. "There was no other choice." He was in his car, driving up to Vienna from Graz, where he had been meeting with students to talk about the book and about Mein Österreich (www.meinoe.at), his public initiative launched in September, aimed at catalysing support for political change. His visit followed just days after a packed house had come to hear human rights activist Stéphane Hessel, whose 2010 assault on unregulated capitalism, Time for Outrage (Indignez-Vous), has already sold 3.5 million copies. Hessel’s example stirred Radlegger to action.

"I thought, if this 93 year old can take his own frustrations and become so engaged, then at 65, I can certainly do something, too!" Now, six weeks later, sales of Vom Stillstand zum Widerstand were still brisk.

He was pleased to have "hit upon themes that interested the public – about politics and democracy and the failure of our current politicians."

About these failings, he doesn’t pull any punches, beginning with Chancellor Werner Faymann, whom he has known for many years.

"In my estimation, he is simply not suited for this job," Radlegger told the ORF in September. "He doesn’t have the qualifications to lead a country in these difficult times – that are surely only going to get more difficult."

He began with his circle of friends – including former Salzburg regional politicians Christian Burtscher (Greens) and Ricky Veichtlbauer (SPÖ) as well as Wolfgang Gmachl (ÖVP) of the Chamber of Commerce. They had begun to meet weekly at the famed Jugendstil Café Bazaar by the Staatsbrücke in Salzburg, reading of the latest corruption scandals that tended to block discussion of any of the other pressing issues.

The group has come to be called the WutSenioren, the Outraged Seniors – a group of retired politicians who, freed from the pressures of political survival, are perhaps freer to speak their minds.

"There are certain advantages to being retired," Radlegger said, laughing. Out of these discussions www.meinoe.at was born.

Since then, other power figures of Austria’s political past have joined the effort: former vice chancellor Erhard Busek (ÖVP), former Environmental Minister Andreas Wabl (Greens), Johannes Voggenhuber (Greens) former member of the EU Parliament, Heide Schmidt (LIF, later FPÖ), onetime candidate for Federal President, and lawyer Heinrich Neisser (ÖVP) former speaker of the National Assembly. (For a full list see, www.demokratiebegehren.at).

Dr. Busek has becom a co-spokesman for the movement. ÖVP party leader and vice chancellor, he has, as few others, maintained an active role in public life.

"We wanted experts from all the parties," Busek emphasized, to not get bogged down in partisan politics. They decided to concentrate on changing the election law, to introducing more direct democracy, making the justice system more responsive, and fighting corruption.

He is convinced that the mood is ripe. At one recent forum held at the Burg Kino [see Sedition at the Stammtisch, p32] he admitted to being startled at the intensity of people’s feelings.

"It was shocking for me to see all the anger," Busek said. "They were shaking their fists. Still people said, ‘It’s good that you are doing this’. "

The WutSenioren are on the road a lot these days. Salzburg Green Party leader Christian Burtscher returned a call from his car.

"There is paralysis that has developed in Austrian democracy that is very worrisome, and it goes straight across all the parties," he said, echoing the feelings of Radlegger (SPÖ) and Busek (ÖVP). "This plays right into the hands of the far right."

The goal of Mein Österreich has been to collect 8,000 signatures by 26. Oct. – Austrian National Day – to call a vote to petition for a referendum. At the deadline, they had over 12,000.

They met on 22 Oct., in Vienna to plan their next moves: "We have to decide how to divide up the work, how we are paying for it," Busek said. They were most concerned with getting young people involved, and Busek said he would be contacting for former Student Union (ÖH) head, Sigrid Maurer, among others.

Spirits were high as the meeting began, as Erwing Meyer of Mehr Demokratie (younger by several decades) pushed his ideas for direct voting, while avoiding runaway populism.

"Well, that’s democracy!" laughed Andreas Wabl. "You’ll find that you won’t have everything under control!"

After the session, Erhard Busek returned a call, to report on the results of the discussions. "We agreed on two things: First, that we have to make contact with the other groups, the other initiatives," he said. "It’s important that we initiate a product dialogue.

"And second, that we make our intentions clearer, come up with very concise formulations that can lead to open discussions."

This seemed like a surprisingly modest outcome.  But they would have more to say by the end of the month. "If it’s the beginning of November," he said, "well, that’s not the end of the world."

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