Last week the Lowe Down shipped out to Vienna, Austria, of all places, to give a series of lectures at the behest of the U.S. State Department. The Europeans are fascinated by the U.S. elections this year, to the point where our campaign reports lead their news programs. The average Austrian I met knew more about the dynamics of our election than most Americans.
You'd never know, from following our media, that the Austrians are in the midst of a bitter parliamentary election of their own. Their campaigns are limited by law to six weeks (so civilized), and to an American, the bewildering array of party names looks like somebody spilled a bowl of alphabet soup on the table.
The SPO and the OVP had a Grand Coalition for awhile, but that broke up, necessitating this snap election. But the right-wing FPO is coming up on the outside. Then, there's the crackpot ultra-right BZO, and some worry that they might pull off some political jiujitsu and grab the Chancellorship. (It can happen: Remember Kurt Waldheim? The old ex-Nazi with memory problems won the Austrian Presidency and was banned from travel to the U.S.)
As if that weren't enough, the Greens are splashing around in the soup with their own agenda, not to mention a Scrabble-bag full of marginal two-bit parties that might forge coalition blocs of their own.
Many of the issues in the Austrian elections, which will be held on Sept. 28, are eerily similar to ours. Anti-immigrant sentiment (the FPO is pushing a law to make them learn German or go home), gay marriage, social security, inflation. Over there, the Turks are to them what Latin immigrants are to us.
One other thing...they don't care at all what a pol does in his private life. It's irrelevant to them in terms of his or her electability. John Edwards would still be a contender over there. What they hate are dirty, Karl Rove-style politics. This always backfires onto the perpetrator.
This pretty-boy (I'm talking about the one on the poster. The guy standing there looking like a typical ugly American is your intrepid editorial cartoonist) is Heinz-Christian Strache, the face of the FPO, the right-wing Austrian Freedom Party. Often, you see his poster (political posters number in the millions in Vienna) defaced with a red stick-on clown nose. The message translates as "Social Security for OUR people," which is code for "native Austrians." There is a strong xenophobic streak over there, and the emphasis in this poster is on denying social security to immigrants and other undesirables.
Why was I there? The State Department thought the Austrians would be particularly fascinated by an American editorial cartoonist who explained our elections to them and amplified his comments with examples of his work.
As you can see by this photo of a Viennese crowd breathlessly awaiting admission to one of my lectures, the trip was a success in terms of promoting our country's image abroad. I dragged out some of my college German from 35 years ago for my introduction, which, thankfully, appeared to win over the mob, "Ich bin ein Berliner"-style. Fortunately, almost everybody understands English over there to some extent. If you read this blog regularly, you've probably seen most of the cartoons that I displayed over there, so I won't bore you further with them now.
For those of you who understand German, I've placed links below to the websites of the Austrian dailies that covered my visit. Even if you don't sprechen Deutsch, there are some interesting pictures in there.
Also listed is a story in English by a young reporter from the local newspaper in the Quad Cities, which, as every red-blooded American knows, means Davenport, Bettendorf, Moline and Rock Island. She happens to be over there on a journalism fellowship.
Lastly, I did a radio interview (in English) for Austrian state radio, which is linked below. The best thing about it, I think, is the accent on the guy who interviewed me. He's originally from Barbados, picked up the plummy Queen's English at Oxford, and looks like Sydney Poitier in his younger days.
Here's the Quad City Times piece (in English):