Commentary: "'Democracy is Fragile' says Austrian Chancellor Brigitte Bierlein"

Max Ferrer
October 11, 2019

Before Austria went to the ballot box for the September 29th election, which returned power to Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party, Interim Federal Chancellor Brigitte Beirlein gave an address at the Columbia World Leaders Forum. Chancellor Bierlein is an unusual head of government, serving in a non-traditional capacity. As she noted in her remarks to the forum, hers is an administration without a public mandate to govern. Her government was appointed in June this year following the much publicized Ibiza affair, the collapse of the governing coalition, and the resignation of her predecessor (and successor) Sebastian Kurz. During the question and answer portion of her appearance, Bierlein shared that in her view, the role of her government is not to pass sweeping legislation or effect any long-term change. Rather, her function as Interim Chancellor is to protect Austria and its interests on the European stage.

The notion of protection featured prominently in her remarks, entitled “Freedom, Security, and the Rule of Law: A European Perspective”. Bierlein focused largely on the need to balance individual freedoms and privacy with “necessary surveillance” and measures taken to prevent the spread of global terrorism, including domestic nationalist threats.

Given Chancellor Bierlein’s previous role as President of the Constitutional Court (a position she was appointed to under Kurz’s first administration), it is no surprise that the moderator of the event, Professor of Law and International Organization Anu Bradford, inquired as to her opinion on the role of courts in contemporary policy creation. Bierlein responded by promoting the Austrian judiciary as often leading the way on policy directives. Citing the 2017 ruling that legalized same-sex marriage in Austria, against the wishes of the ruling parties, as well as the Austrian, German and European court rulings limiting surveillance on private citizens, Bierlein suggested that the Austrian courts often leave the nation’s political parties to play catch-up.

During the Q&A portion of Chancellor Bierlein’s appearance, one student inquired about the lessons Europe has learned from World War II. Speaking about the current growing popularity of nationalist, far-right parties throughout Europe and the world, Bierlein responded with remarkable candor: though admitting that she could not pinpoint the cause for this global shift, she remained convinced that democracy will prevail. However, growing sentiment of political powerlessness and the subsequent attraction to reactionary politics exhibited by so many across the world indicate that perhaps the present functioning of our democracies is partially to blame. To be sure, given the success of nationalist, far-right parties at the ballot box, one can wonder if our democratic institutions are well-equipped to address this problem after all.

Speaking to this latent political anxiety, Bierlein warned earlier in her remarks that “democracy is fragile,” a sentiment that is shared by prominent members of the Democratic partythose witnessing Brexit firsthand, and those commenting on the threat posed by strongman politicians to the East in Russia and China.

Perhaps a result of her government’s lack of popular mandate, Bierlein’s attitude towards governing, and her remarks, focused more on her confidence in the courts, and in political institutions more generally, to uphold the rule of law and protect democracy, rather than on concrete policy initiatives. Her focus on the need for safety, democracy, and the rule of law was particularly appropriate given the timing of her remarks. Earlier that morning, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled against the actions of Boris Johnson’s government. Then, the same afternoon saw Nancy Pelosi’s announcement of impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump. Bierlein’s professed faith in institutional ability to curb growing nationalist ideology proved an apt summation of the day’s news. But will this faith be enough, or is it time to have a more robust conversation about the way power functions and citizens engage in our democracies today?

Max Ferrer is an MA Student in the European History, Politics, and Society program at the European Institute, Columbia University.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Institute.