Austria, Turkey: Two societies based on similar values

KLAUS JURGENS
Published 24.09.2019 01:17

With the fallout of the Ibıza scandal and related dramas impacting the political classes still not entirely measurable, Austrian voters will head to the polls on Sept. 29, 2019 to elect their new parliament, the Nationalrat or lower house, comprised of 183 deputies. This earlier-than-scheduled trip to the ballot box was triggered by a vote of no confidence against former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, which he lost.

Observers with an interest in bilateral relations between Turkey and Austria will focus on how, and if at all, issues related to the multicultural nature of Austrian society are going to play a role – or not. In a nutshell: are the just above 120,000 voters of Turkish descent being courted by campaign managers or not taken seriously enough? Basically the core interests and values of a voter of Turkish origin when compared with his or her Austrian neighbors are not that different; one might actually say that if we take the concept of the family as a key anchor of a society, they are almost identical at least when interpreted from a conservative – conservative with a small "c" – perspective.

First though here are some figures with regards to the three major political parties. When taking a look at voter preferences, Kurz's conservative Austrian People's Party (ÖVP) scores 33%, the Social Democratic Party (SPÖ) 22% and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) 20%.

Mathematically everything is possible, including a SPÖ-FPÖ coalition or a remake of the ÖVP-FPÖ government. A single-party majority seems highly unlikely, and a minority government might not be sworn in by President Alexander Van der Bellen.

Regional versus national issues

It appears that in a post-Ibiza world the summer school holiday period brought at least some time for reflection among policymakers and the electorate alike. From what commentators on location hear when speaking with party managers is that everyone needed a break from politics and thus the truly "hot phase" of the September vote campaign did not begin in earnest before the end of the summer school holidays a few weeks ago.

On one hand, the elections might very well feature more of a regional dimension this time around: think the question about whether or not to allow foreign motorists use country roads while in transit instead of the motorway, or issues linked to the protection of farm versus wild animals, respectively. After all, both the tourism as well as the agricultural sectors are vital for Austria's economy and hence make for subjects on everyone's mind.

Yet on the other hand, there was nevertheless already one more ideologically inclined comment floated by Sebastian Kurz, who declared that political Islam would not have a place in his country but in principal it seems as if other topics are going to dominate the remaining few weeks until Sept. 29, such as climate change, which is named as the most relevant issue by voters when making their choice for whom to cast their ballot.

Climate change, regional variations and a few ideological excursions pushed aside one other subject is a hot pick: should smoking in public places be banned altogether or a compromise of sorts, including in the hospitality sector, be found?

Two very similar societies

This is all great, creating a scenario for voters, regardless of their backgrounds, to unite and think about moving forward instead of getting entangled in ill-fated debates about ideology.

And then there is the family unit. What many analysts engaged in Turkish and Austrian politics, respectively, never fully understood is why there was so much misperception and often missing dialogue between both sides. The reason for this comment is that in principle both modern Turkey and modern Austria put great emphasis on a functioning family life, and its core values like trust, harmony and respect, just a few of a rather extensive list of positive attributes.

Granted, in metropolises such as Vienna or Istanbul, things are changing as more and more single-person households emerge and the age of marrying is pushed back by a few more years. But regardless of whether living alone away from the parents or under one roof is found in Austrian and Turkish societies, everyone relies on family structures to a great extent to operate as smoothly as possible.

It is based on tradition and in the belief that raising a family is not only a joyous thing and the right thing to do, but staying in touch and taking good care of elderly is also a nonnegotiable task. This trend is perhaps more often found in rural areas but is most definitely seen in the cities, too.

Coming back to the issue of the September vote, it appears that a logical conclusion would be that voters of Turkish decent eligible to cast their votes are becoming more conservative and turning to traditional political parties – even more so in regions far from the capital Vienna – instead of opting for more left-leaning alternatives.

Small steps, big impact

With a focus on bilateral Turkey-Austria relations and the issues currently at stake, it makes sense to set short-term misperceptions aside and take a look at foreign policy making in a wider sense while also discussing a very important aspect often completely overlooked: that technically speaking, Austrian and Turkish traditional values are almost identical.

On the foreign policy side and due to the fact that only an interim government currently runs the nation, it is not surprising that dramatic statements about international topics have been shelved until after the September vote.

In this context and even more relevant is the fact that former – and in all likelihood future – Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl chose to spend a summer holiday in Turkey. There is of course always a fair amount of politics involved even when a politician goes on holiday, similar to a musician who declares for two weeks they won't write any new songs while probably collecting more material than when sitting in front of his music sheets; hence it was no surprise that Mrs. Kneissl while visiting one of Turkey's most famous sites, Ephesus, commented on the almost 125-year bilateral cooperation in the field of archaeology and historical excavations.

It was a comment in the wider picture sense, yet nevertheless a comment about a welcome detail in Ankara-Vienna contacts and cooperation. It is too early to say whether Kneissl will continue her bridge-building path but judging by previous statements when while still in office, chances are very high she will.

Many analysts refer to modern Turkey as a nation where tradition is paired with modernity. Should Austria embark on a similar path, voters of Turkish decent will feel rather well represented. In other words – the glass is most definitely half full instead of half empty.

* Political analyst, journalist based in London

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