In postwar Vienna we used to listed to a satirical broadcast by the US occupying forces, waiting to hear: ‘When Harun al-Rashid roamed the streets in private…’, followed by something that had transpired during the week. Asking bystanders about the why and how, the caliph always received the same reply: ‘Stranger, you should know you are in Baghdad!’
Foreign observers wondering about why former federal chancellor Sebastian Kurz facing criminal charges has taken so long handing in his resignation might also hear: Stranger, you should know you are in Austria! Dutch columnist Caroline de Gruyter (2021) with insider knowledge invokes the early-19th century Austrian Foreign Minister Count Metternich claiming that the Balkans started right outside his palace on a road to the south-east. But behold! Heading for Vienna, we left a Netherlands embroiled in crisis, crossed a Federal Republic soon to enter one and, whilst we are at it, there is the Czech Republic trying to make sense of the outcome of its elections with a defeated prime minister accused of all manner of things pinning his hopes on a maverick presidential incumbent in intensive care asking him to form the next government.
To understand each situation, one would need to know more. But they have in common that they show the production of democratic legitimacy being problematic. Oh, yes, eligible citizens enter voting booths or mail in their votes, but how to get them do to do so in your favour? What Kurz is accused of – whether or not wrongly is for the courts to decide – is having arranged for the boulevard press to publish fake opinion polls in exchange for advertisements paid for with public money. The reader is invited to add his or her own example of engineering election results.
I came across this first when reading about American, so-called political machines arranging for party bosses gaining – and holding on to – power. Meyerson and Banfield (1955) on public housing in Chicago documented this in relation to public housing. It would take somebody with more relevant knowledge than me to make the comparison with what in Austria is called the ‘System Kurz’, but his ruthlessly taking over a right-of-centre party conventionally in power with a team of stalwart supporters, changing its name and the colour under which it is known point in the same direction. And, not to forget, the real, or alleged payoffs to supporters…
There are no easy answers. In the US the reaction to what was called ‘machine government’ was to remove certain issues – to remain with planning, for instance zoning decisions – from politics. This was called ‘clean government’, overlooking the fact that it favoured the middle class. Which might also be said of giving a greater role to experts. All of this only goes to show that how to operationalise the democratic ideal – and, I would add, whether to do this territory by territory rather than issue by issue – needs rethinking.
Gruyter, C. (2021) Werd in Oostenrijk echt 1,2 miljoen euro belastingsgeld gebruikt om burgers met fake news to foppen? NRC, 8 October.
Meyerson, M., Banfield, E.C. (1955) Politics, Planning and the Public Interest, Free Press, Glencoe Ill.