Shaking the hand of the Austrian president, Alexander Van der Bellen, during my inauguration as Austria’s justice minister in January was a profoundly moving moment for me and for my family. But it was moving also for a great many people who came to Austria as migrants or refugees. To see a former child refugee from the Bosnian war sworn in as a government minister in the country to which her family fled in 1995 was for many hugely symbolic – a signal that they, too, had now been fully accepted as part of Austrian society, with the right to participate in the country’s politics and even to shape it.
But from day one, becoming the embodiment of this acceptance also unleashed a torrent of hate directed at me from the right and from proponents of the far right in Austria. Resentments that had been held down over years resurfaced. In just two months, the Austrian authorities have recorded more than 25,500 incidents of publicly made hate speech and hate comments directed at or about me, from racist insults to calls to go back where I came from. Because some of these messages included credible death threats, the Austrian security services issued me with 24-hour protection. “A bullet is reserved for you,” one of these messages said.
Since then I have been asked if I regretted accepting the job in government, and if I regretted entering a coalition formed between the conservative People’s party and my party, the Greens. On both counts, I strongly believe I made the right call because of the change that could potentially follow – a change we badly need.
First, it has to be said that, despite the hate, I also received a huge outpouring of support. The silent majority that stands for an open and inclusive society has found its voice. The hate I received was drowned in a flood of solidarity, each message eager to offer the assurance that Austria is inclusive and diverse. It was as if parts of society suddenly dared to break their silence to make a stand for openness. This showed me that only a small – if unfortunately loud – group resents a foreign-born Austrian being in government.
Second, I do believe that it was necessary for the Green party to take up the opportunity to shape politics and enter government. In government we have the power to shape the future in Austria and more broadly in Europe, where we must collectively confront the challenges of our generation and lay the foundations for progressive and sustainable change.
While illiberal demagogy and populism are still on the rise in Europe, threatening our liberal democratic peace and demonstrating how polarised and fragmented our societies are becoming, we have to find ways to bridge these divisions. The fact that we are also seeing Green parties winning parliamentary seats and influencing power across Europe is the most hopeful sign I can think of.
Austria shows the challenges faced. The previous coalition government included the far-right Freedom party, a party that questioned the independence of our public broadcaster and raided the Austrian intelligence agency. All of this was accompanied by xenophobic and antisemitic incidents associated with this party.
It all culminated in the so-called Ibiza-gate corruption scandal last summer, in which the then vice-chancellor, Heinz-Christian Strache, was caught on tape appearing to promise public contracts in return for help in the election campaign. Prosecutors are investigating him on suspicion of fraud in connection with the footage. He denies committing any crimes. This scandal led to the break-up of the administration and has corroded public trust in government.
A further, existential challenge we are facing is the climate crisis. We are at a point in history where we have to act before the effects on future generations become irreparable. Since the climate crisis does not wait for progressive majorities, we need to seize the chance and act now. If we, as Greens, get the opportunity to enter government and influence the right policies to substantially reduce carbon dioxide emissions, we have a duty to act.
The latest election in Austria provided proof that the Greens have many of the right answers to our current challenges. And a record number of voters conferred their trust on us, making it our responsibility to respond.
Thus, while entering a coalition with a fundamentally different party is a challenge, it is at the same time an opportunity – a challenge because on the most divisive issues, such as migration or national security, we have fundamentally different approaches.
Yet it is a chance to show that within our social contract we can respectfully engage even with those who have different opinions. This can help to bridge the gaps within our society. It can help politicians regain the trust of the people, fight corruption and strengthen civil society.
Who gets to share power makes a difference in a democracy. And because of our decision, it is not the far right, the alternative coalition partner that was open to the conservatives. Today, even the biggest points of divergence in our coalition agreement are debated openly and therefore in a new constructive light. We start out with different opinions and yet manage to find a common solution.
Right now, for example, we are not trying to find a scapegoat when confronting the spread of coronavirus. Instead we are trying to enact evidence-based policies grounded in a sober assessment of what is in front of us. The public, at least for now, appears to appreciate the change. It is too early to tell whether this experiment will succeed, but we are off to a promising start.
These are the first signs of a discourse that is changing because my colleagues and I stand for progressive change. All of a sudden we are not on the retreat, but on the offensive with our view of the world. This is where I see a change of momentum. My ethic is grounded in the responsibility we share for the planet and society, and the chance to bring about sustainable change.
Alma Zadić is Austria's federal minister of justice.