Viktor Klima (born 1947) who became Chancellor of Austria in 1997, promised to streamline his government and lead his nation in cooperation with a united Europe.
Viktor Klima came to head the executive branch of the Austrian government after a long period of apprenticeship in the business world and in several government ministries. He succeeded his mentor, Franz Vranitzky, who resigned after bitter wrangling in the Austrian parliament over privatization of government industries and banking. With the threatened demise of Vranitzsky's coalition government, Klima stepped in with promises to streamline government and heal the wounds of the past.
Klima faces many challenges in Austria, known since the end of World War II for its strict neutralist policies. With pressures from both the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as well as domestic social and political problems, Klima treads carefully in order to protect his country's interests and his party's needs in a changing European scene.
Born in 1947 in Vienna, Klima studied economics and business information at the Vienna Technical University and the University of Vienna. For more than twenty years, he worked for Osterreichische Mineralol-Verwaltungs AG (OMV), a huge oil and gas consortium, as a manager and business analyst. At OMV, Klima was known as a capable manager who streamlined the organization and worked to make the company more effective in international markets.
Klima was not directly involved in politics during this time although he did join the Social Democratic Party (SPO), the rough equivalent of the Labor Party in Great Britain. SPO leadership soon began think of tapping Klima for a government ministry position.
As Chancellor, Klima is a hard-working politician, and according to a Nando.net article, has been called "charming, " "smart, " and "tough" by political commentators. The Financial Times has compared him to British Prime Minister Tony Blair because of his practical approach to government, his attractive appearance, and his ease with the media. Klima is married, with two children from a previous marriage. He and his wife Sonja enjoy jungle safaris in their leisure time.
Rising Through the Ranks
Klima was first appointed to a government position in April 1992. As Minister of Transport and State Industry, he applied his business expertise to the gradual privatization of many state-run companies. He oversaw this important change from state control to private ownership, convincing many skeptical industrialists of the virtues of private enterprise. In 1996, Chancellor Vranitzky appointed Klima to the position of Finance Minister. Klima's main focus in this ministry was to bring Austria's monetary system into compliance with the European Monetary Union.
Unlike his predecessor, he was able to negotiate a state budget with the People's Party (OVP), also called the Christian Democrats, the conservative junior partner in the coalition government. Klima also undertook to cut government expenses, especially for social services. In general, he was seen as a leader with excellent political skills and a practical sense of what could and could not be accomplished.
Particularly hard to accomplish was a reform of the banking industry. Much controversy surrounded the proposed government sale of its shares in Austria's second-largest bank. OVP members refused to agree to the SPO plan to merge the country's two largest banks, and the resulting political stalemate threatened the health of the Austrian economy. In January 1997, Vranitsky gave up his efforts at compromise and resigned as chancellor, asking Klima to succeed him.
A Popular New Leader
Klima's first task as chancellor was to negotiate with the OVP to stave off a power grab by the far-right Freedom Party (FPO). He was able to put together a new SPO-OVP coalition government, with the support of OVP leader Wolfgang Schussel, and was inaugurated chancellor on January 28, 1997. According to a political commentator in the Economist, Klima "promises to be tougher, more energetic and more decisive" than Vranitsky, as well as "more charming and more clever" and "better versed in economics" at a time when Austria is preoccupied with getting into the European Monetary Union.
He may need all of his political and personal skills to counter a growing rightist (some say neo-fascist) movement in the country, led by the colorful Jorg Haider of the Freedom Party. In the 1996 European parliament elections, the Freedom Movement took an unprecedented 28 percent of the votes. Haider is a charismatic politician who has capitalized on the economic uncertainty brought about by the growing power of the EU and fears of increased immigration. According to an on-line article from the Socialdemocratic News from Austria, Klima considers Haider's ideal for Austria "isolated, barricaded, stuffy and nationalistic, " in contrast to the SPO's model of "an economically competitive, peaceful, just and humane state within a unified Europe."
In addition to his plans for Austria to take a fuller role in European affairs, Klima unveiled the rest of his program at a federal congress of the Social Democrats, held in of April 1997. In a speech on the "Next Millennium, " (on-line article from the Socialdemocratic News from Austria,) he praised the SPO's "courage, energy, and … vision of a better Austria." Klima addressed his hopes of creating full employment by a productive melding of government and private efforts, proposed a reform of the social system to help those in poverty, advocated more cooperation among generations and sexes, and explored ways in which government could be more responsive on the local level.
Klima also spoke about improvements in education, environmental issues, the dissemination of more cultural projects to the public, the necessity of cooperation in government, and the need for openness and tolerance. His own tolerance did not extend to the Freedom Party, however, which (from the Socialdemocratic News from Austria,) he called "[a] party which is always against something but never actually for anything, which plays on fears, seeks out scapegoats, and has a sloppy relationship to the issue of national socialism [Nazism]."
Challenges of the Future
Klima faces the paradox of a traditionally neutralist Austria which also wishes to integrate more fully with the EU. Following the Allied occupation of Austria after World War II, Austria agreed to join neither the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the Warsaw Pact, making it a neutral bridge between Cold War enemies. The OVP has been urging Austria to join NATO, as have several of the western allies.
To many observers, Austria was a perfect candidate for NATO; it had, after all, been a part of the EU since 1995, and in February of 1998 it became one of eleven European nations to agree to a single currency by January 1, 1999. Klima at first vacillated on the NATO issue but in the end reverted to a neutralist stance, asserting to the Washington Postthat "Austria will not become a member of any military bloc." Klima's political sense is good, despite the puzzlement of many in the West: a clear majority in his country opposes joining NATO, partly because of Austria's current lean defense budget. In March of 1998, Klima denied that staying outside NATO would adversely affect Austria's ability to cooperate in security responsibilities, including peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia.
Klima faces many more challenges in the near future. Although the inflation and unemployment rates are low in Austria, the country continues to have problems related to deregulation of industries, which Claus Raidl, an Austrian industrialist said was similar to a "change from a communist economy to a market economy on a small scale." With government interference in business still fairly high in Austria, according to British commentator William Hall in the Financial Times, "the traditional cosy political relationships which used to characterise corporate Austria do not score high marks with international investors."
Austria will also be tested as it takes over the presidency of the EU in the second half of 1998. As Klima leads the country more and more into international trade, Austria will be pressured to open its political system as well as its markets. Moreover, in the EU, Austria will have to help nations sort out the imminent question of the single currency. Several of smaller countries of central Europe would also like to be considered for EU membership; if they are admitted, many see economic difficulties, including pressure to admit many more immigrants, on the borders of Austria. Austria as temporary leader of the EU will have to mediate between those who favor and those who fear EU expansion.
Klima seems to have the right combination of political skills and personal traits for effective leadership in post-Cold War Europe. He has reorganized government, pacified disputing parties, kept his country economically sound, and, most important, encouraged Austria's participation in European affairs. As Klima commented to ArabicNews.com, "Austria really believes that a state of peace in Europe will only be possible by [a] process of European unification."
Chicago Sun-Times, February 28, 1998, p. 28.
Daily Telegraph, October 18, 1997, p. 12.
Economist, January 25, 1997, p. 47.
Financial Times, January 20, 1997, p. 2; December 1, 1997, pp. 1-2; March 16, 1998, p. 3.
Los Angeles Times, December 11, 1997, p. A1.
New York Times, October 14, 1996, p. A9.
Washington Post, March 15, 1998, p. A28.
"Austrian Information, " http://www.austria.org/feb97/klima.html (March 22, 1998).
"Austria's New Finance Minister Has Political Savvy, " Nando.net,http://nando.net/newsroom/ntn/world/010396/world6.html (March 22, 1998).
"Federal Chancellor Viktor Klima Elected Chairman of the SPO, " Current Affairs-Federal Press Service, Vienna, 1997-98, http://www.austria.gv.at/e/aktuell/berichte/spvorsitz.htm (March 22, 1998).
"News from Austria, " http://www.austria.gv.at/e/aktuell/info14/03-98.htm (March 22, 1998).
"Preparing for the Next Millennium: the SPO's 35th Federal Party Congress, " Socialdemocratic News from Austria,http://iis.spoe.or.at/is/0297/art01.htm (March 22, 1998).