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Klubobfrau Sigrid Maurer und Vizekanzler Werner Kogler (GRÜNE)



What does the term “Sideletter” mean exactly, and where does the leak leave the Greens?

The Greens are angry about the leak of a so-called side letter to the coalition agreement with the ÖVP. Political analyst Melanie Sully on the details of this leak.

By Joanna Bostock

This side letter supposedly reveals secret deals that were not included in the official coalition deal. The Greens say the paper was deliberately leaked as an act of sabotage by supporters of former chancellor Sebastian Kurz. We spoke to political analyst Melanie Sully.

Joanna Bostock / FM4: So where does this leave the Greens, and what does the term “Side letter” mean exactly?

Melanie Sully: Well, it’s not unusual in contract law, so it’s a legal term. And basically, if you have a contract, you can tack something onto the end of it. Maybe you don’t want to put in so much detail which could be binding on both partners. The question is whether it is in fact legally binding or if there’s a little bit of scope for interpretation. And this is kind of spuild over as we’ve learnt to politics coalition politics in Austria.

FM4: So it’s basically a secret deal parallel to the official coalition agreement with some extra wheeling and dealing as it were. But not everyone in the Green negotiating team appears to be aware of it as far as we can tell.

Melanie Sully: No, and that could be a problem, because this is something which is surrounded in secrecy and therefore throws up a lot of questions about grubby backdoor deals. I think it should be remembered, though, that Austria is traditionally a party state, meaning that the political parties are used to actually politicising the bastions of power in the Republic. And so there’s always been coalition pacts, coalition agreements, and that would be something which would be important for the smooth running of a coalition. And in the early 1950s, indeed, these coalition agreements were secret. They are now always published and so one assumed that it was all out in the open. And then you learn that perhaps the Greens are just as bad as all the other parties in doing this horse trading and secret deals. For many in the Greens, this will be a shock. For some of them it might not be too important because they voted for the Greens for environment policies, and they put through quite a lot so far of their agenda. So it’s difficult to see what the fallout would be, but really it puts the Greens on the defensive.

FM4: One of the controversial parts of this is an alleged deal under which the Greens accepted the idea of a ban on head scarves for teachers in schools, in turn for a top position on the board of the ORF. Just how contentious a point is this for the Greens?

Melanie Sully: Well, again, it makes them look just like part of that grubby system that they were always criticising in opposition. And so for many of their clientele - if this had come out in the open and it was all written down, black and white published, it wouldn’t have been swallowed by their own clientele. And that was the danger because they needed the acquiescence of the rank and file and their congress to actually go ahead with the coalition. So it would have been scuppered at that point. The Green leadership, apparently only a very few of them knew about it, and many in the coalition team of the negotiations of the Greens didn’t know about it either. So, you know, transparency is no way to be seen, basically, but they would argue, well, it never would have happened or whatever, and it was necessary to secure control of the coalition partner, the ÖVP, and to make sure that this thing would run smoothly.

Die ÖVP hat auch in der Koalition mit den Grünen einen sogenannten Sideletter zum Koalitionsvertrag abgeschlossen - u.a. auch zum Thema "Kopftuch"


FM4: Yes, because over the weekend, Werner Kogler and Sigrid Maurer have been arguing that the headscarf ban deal wouldn’t have been accepted anyway by the Constitutional Court. So they’re saying effectively it was an empty promise.

Melanie Sully: Yeah, that’s what they’re saying. And obviously, a lot of these things, again, if they had come out in the open, there would have been no coalition because the whole thing would have been rejected by the rank and file of the Greens. But it leaves a sort of nasty taste that Austria was always accused in the past. Historically, after the Second World War of dishing out major posts in finance and administration and supervisory boards between then the Reds and the Blacks, the SPÖ and the ÖVP, according to a kind of one for you, one for me. And this comes to the surface now. Maybe it’s always been done that way. We don’t know how many similar side letters in the past were sealed between coalition partners. Austria has no Freedom of Information Act, so these things come to light in leaks to the media.

FM4: So the Greens say this is a deliberate attempt at sabotage by allies of former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. What do you make of that allegation?

Melanie Sully: Well, again, we have no evidence for that. And as there’s no Freedom of Information Act, there’s no real process to get to the bottom of that other than relying on future leaks to the media. It does show an enormous lack of trust between the Greens now and their former chancellor Sebastian Kurz. It’s a lack of trust all around because the reasons for the site letter were based on lack of trust. And that is now compounded I think as details of this come out with an increased lack of trust in the public, in politicians and politics generally, which can’t be good for democracy.

FM4: According to reports the current chancellor, Karl Nehammer, wasn’t aware of this deal. So does that let him off the hook?

Melanie Sully: Well, so long as that’s true, yes. The question is then how many previous side letters were there in coalitions? How many people knew about them in the past? And will that be in the future? Such deals, such site letters, because in the future we will have coalition negotiations. We will have then the coalition pact published, the election programme that they’ve decided upon to implement in the legislative period. And then the question will be: Oh, and do you have a side letter by any chance? So this will be very difficult in the future as well.

FM4: Ever since this coalition between the and the Greens came into office, there have been crises, controversies which have prompted speculation about early elections. And the answer has always been they want to carry on, particularly in the pandemic. What do you think the situation is now?

Melanie Sully: Well, I think it’s very strange, obviously. In the Greens particularly because this will be a shock. The greens that were leading these negotiations and agreed to the side letter said: We’re going into a coalition, but we’re not naive. So obviously they were quite okay with this kind of process. But many in the rank and file will not be OK with it. And they will be asking, what other deals are there? It just raises a lot of suspicion about how involved the Greens are in what some see in the Green Party as a sort of sorted system, which you are handing out post and doing trade offs really on core principles. So this will not go down very well. There is a change in the chancellorship, so there is a chance that there could be kind of stability returning with the pandemic hopefully subsiding, then the argument for not holding an election, you know, disappears into the background. And if there is more conflict and a lack of stability in the coalition, this could be just one side issue, if you like, that will lead to a breakdown.

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