Heinz Fischer, president of Austria
Challenging times: Heinz Fischer, president of Austria © Ilmars Znotins/AFP

Heinz Fischer, Austria’s president for the past 11 years, embodies the stability — critics would say stagnation — of Austrian politics over the past decade.

In an interview in his office in state rooms once used by Empress Maria Theresa, the 77-year-old president defends the record of the Social Democrat-led grand coalitions that have ruled the country since 2007. But he describes coalition government, over which he has presided with Chancellor Werner Faymann, Europe’s longest serving prime minister, as a “tiring system”.

Mr Fischer says that the ruling parties’ shrinking share of the vote — falling to 51 per cent at the 2013 election — inevitably weakens the momentum of reform. He contrasts this with the glory days of his mentor, Bruno Kreisky, the late chancellor who led single-party Socialist governments in the 1970s. The governments of Kreisky — the subject of one of his books — were “a real period of reform”, he says.

The career Social Democrat politician and former parliamentary speaker argues the government’s consensual policy stance is a necessary corrective to a preceding centre-right coalition of the People’s Party and the Freedom Party.

Austria’s powerful trade unions are now consulted, instead of ignored, in the preparation of legislation, including the recent tax reform. He sees this as the root of business’ constant carping at the government for not moving fast enough: “Part of the problem is that business people have the feeling that their influence is not growing and that trade unions have more influence.”

Yet he admits that “some reforms are going too slowly”. This includes a prolonged debate in the coalition over education policy which is “going very, very slowly”. He also agrees with business that “we need to reduce bureaucracy”.

Mr Fischer points out that Austria remains one of the wealthiest countries in the EU, even if recent economic performance has been disappointing.

“Frankly speaking our economic performance is presentable, not bad in comparison with other European countries,” he says.

A consensual backroom operator in domestic politics, he has played a more public and sometimes controversial role in international affairs. In particular, he was criticised for meeting Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in Vienna in June 2014, just a few months after Moscow’s invasion of Crimea. But he defends Vienna’s “more balanced” and “much more relaxed” stance towards Moscow as being in the long tradition of Austrian neutrality.

“We think it is much better to talk to Russia than to turn up the temperature again. We do not forget that Germany and Austria were marching east in the 20th century,” he says, adding that since the victorious Red Army withdrew in 1955, “Austria does not have any particular bad experience with Russia”.

Mr Fischer argues that a “modernised” and “unideological” neutrality still represents “a solid basis for our foreign policy”.

The most serious challenge to Austria’s postwar model is the Freedom Party, the anti-immigration party which is riding high in the opinion polls on the back of the refugee crisis. So far Austria’s multicultural tradition and historic openness to immigrants have survived the 200,000 new arrivals this year. Though some regional governments have dragged their feet at accepting quotas of migrants, non-government organisations have risen to the challenge. “Civil society [organisations] have been organising themselves in a marvellous way — those who tried to make political propaganda were put more on the defensive than before,” says President Fischer. Yet he warns that “if there is no helpful [refugee] policy in Europe, the mood may turn again in the direction of fear and dissatisfaction”.

Such a mood can only benefit the Freedom Party and potentially undermine the grand coalition before the next general elections due in 2018. When Mr Fischer’s second and final six-year term comes to an end next spring, Austria’s stability may already be a thing of the past. “My successor might have a difficult situation forming a [new] government,” he admits.

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