Written by Elodie Arpa
My home country Austria is not known for turbulence nor does its people like political agitation. If one had to describe the Republic of Austria, one would focus on its mountainous landscape, different dialects and collective passion for skiing.
On the 17th of May 2019, however, Austria got into international headlines – and it was not because of a world cup win. The press released a (secretly recorded) video, which showed the right-wing party leader Heinz Christian Strache, who at the time was Austria’s vice-chancellor, bragging about corrupt political practices and his plans to restrict media freedom. The discussion was recorded in a villa in Ibiza, which gave it the name “Ibiza scandal”. One day after its exposition, the Austrian coalition between the conservative-centrist party ÖVP and the right-wing party FPÖ collapsed.
Suddenly, Austria faced an unprecedented national crisis. After decades of relative political stability, the country was lost in chaos. But this collective uncertainty did not last for long: with his speech to the nation Austria’s president Alexander Van der Bellen addressed all citizens and emphasized that there was no reason to panic. Even though the country had no experience with such a situation, the constitution was prepared for this scenario. Thus, we should “admire the beauty of the constitution and follow it step by step to get out of this national crisis”.
The President’s words comforted civil society, but they also showed a strength of leadership no one would have expected. As a parliamentary democracy, the main competencies to propose laws in Austria lay in the government’s (and Chancellor’s) hands. Most people considered the President as a representative and administrative role of low political value and there were many discussions about the necessity of having a President altogether.
But with the “Ibiza scandal” people’s views changed drastically. All at once, they recognized the importance of having a President to guide the country through its political crisis. Within a short time period, the Republic of Austria experienced a lot of ‘firsts’. While the constitution comprises all kinds of political maneuvers, most constitutional jurists considered those to be sheer theoretical constructs that would never be put in action. However, these assessments soon proved to be wrong.
After some political tumult, the opposition gave the government a no-confidence vote, which forced it to resign collectively. On the 27th of May, it then became clear that Austria needed to hold new elections. But the upcoming summer break (and the fact that many citizens planned to go on vacation abroad) did not allow for the elections to take place before the end of September. Thus, Austria was left with a dilemma IIt was imperative to arrange some sort of government for the four-month period between June and October.
As a result, for the first time in its history, Austria formed a government of non-elected experts, composed of senior officials of government departments and high-profile jurists. This was not only an unprecedented political undertaking for Austria, but it was also considered exceptional across Europe. And yet what came as an even bigger surprise: Austria’s new chancellor was a woman. Never has the country been led by a female head of government before.
Dr. Brigitte Bierlein was used to pave the way: After her successful career as a criminal judge (in a time where not many girls chose to become jurists), she became the first female president of the country’s constitutional court. With decades of legal experience, she knew Austria’s constitutional framework like no other. Still, when the President asked her to become the head of the interim government, she hesitated.
A couple of days after the collapse of the former coalition, Mrs. Bierlein received a call from the President. Thinking that he may ask her if she could recommend one of her jurist colleagues for the position of the justice minister, she answered the phone. But the President aimed at something else: “Do you want to be Austria’s interim chancellor?” Mrs. Bierlein could not believe what he was asking her. In an interview, she recalls having responded: “I don’t think I’m the right person to do this. I have no experience in government. I simply cannot accept your offer, Sir”. But the President would not take no for an answer. “Your answer sounds typically female to me. Too often I have seen women decline offers out of self-doubt when their less educated, less experienced male colleagues would have accepted them immediately. I will let you reconsider your answer and tomorrow morning I would like to call you again.”
Mrs. Bierlein, so she remembers, could not stop thinking about the president’s words. She had to agree with his statement, she had experienced similar situations with her female colleagues and friends far too often. When the president called her back the next morning, she felt nervous and uncertain, but she accepted his offer.
As the interim Chancellor Mrs. Bierlein’s first task was to create a government and thus, Austria experienced another historical ‘first’. The newly appointed government was half female, half male. Before this, decades of chancellors had declared that despite their goodwill to establish gender-equal governments, they just could not find enough qualified women to do so. Within hours these long-held excuses got disproved.
During her time in government, Mrs. Bierlein also cut down the government’s public relation and advertisement budget by a third. She started dialogues with the civil society and invited people from all walks of life into her office to listen to their concerns and ideas. Also, areas of politics that were considered unpopular and therefore had been neglected for years, got addressed. The interim justice minister called attention to the severely underbudgeted courts and prisons, while the new defense minister announced the lack of resources in the Austrian Armed forces.
On the 29th of September 2019 re-elections took place, which were followed by lengthy coalition negotiations. Finally, on the 7th of January 2020 the newly elected government took over. While Mrs. Bierlein and her colleagues only spent seven months in office, they had a profound impact on the Austrian people. In fact, the non-elected government of experts had higher approval rates than many formerly elected governments.
Some of the undertakings of the interim government were only possible because unlike an elected government it did not have to propose policy but was merely responsible for administrative work. Thus, a coalition out of elected politicians from different parties would naturally be more prone to conflicts within the government and would have less time to engage with the civil society. Nevertheless, Mrs. Bierlein and her colleagues have set a precedent. Their rational, evidence-based and citizen-oriented governance has had a considerable impact on both how Austrian people perceive politics and how their political representatives act.
Concerning Gender Equality, for instance, a lot has changed since Mrs. Bierlein took office. When the new coalition between the conservative-centrist ÖVP and the Green Party had to form a government in January 2020, they could no longer make excuses for not making it 50/50. Thus, today the majority of ministers in Austria is female. In national politics, where women make up 39% of parliamentarians and less than 8 % of mayors, this is a first step into a fairer, more equal future.
Another demonstration of Mrs. Bierlein’s impact can be seen in Austria’s newspaper headlines. The underbudgeted justice system, as well as the lack of resources in the military, regularly get addressed in both print and online media (after being left out of the spotlight for decades).
Lastly, the interim government reminded the Austrian people of what sort of government they deserve. Seeing Mrs. Bierlein and her colleagues did their work without great fanfare, many citizens realized that politics did not have to be about photo shooting and populist statements only. The non-elected government of experts implemented their in-depth knowledge and worked diligently on maintaining and improving the country’s institutions. With this, the interim ministers upgraded the – mostly negatively perceived – profession of the politician and demonstrated how fact-based leadership could look like.
Hopefully, the example they sat will continue to inspire many bright, visionary and determined young people to go into politics; young people which Austria (just as any other country in the world) desperately needs!