VIENNA — Who knew lighting up a cigarette in a Viennese coffeehouse could be so political?
The new Austrian government’s decision to ditch a ban on smoking in restaurants, slated to take effect this spring, has become a lightning rod for criticism of the ruling coalition, particularly the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ).
The party is never far from controversy. In recent months, party leader Heinz-Christian Strache has called for a curfew for refugees, the interior minister has suggested asylum seekers should be “concentrated” in certain locations — evoking memories of the Nazi era, although he insisted he meant “no provocation” — and two scandals involving Nazi-era songbooks in FPÖ-linked fraternities forced the party to set up a commission to examine its own history.
Yet it is the plan to abandon the smoking ban — a policy the FPÖ insisted be part of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s government program — that has proved the most effective rallying point so far for opponents of the party. A petition launched in mid-February opposing the government’s plan has garnered more than half-a-million signatures in the space of a few weeks.
Although resistance to the government move started out as a nonpartisan movement led by doctors and cancer prevention organizations, opposition parties quickly jumped on board, sensing an early opportunity to inflict damage on the coalition of Kurz’s center-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the FPÖ, which took office in December.
For many Austrians, smoking goes hand in hand with a visit to a coffeehouse or restaurant. The country is one of the last holdouts in Western Europe to allow smoking in such venues. Being intricately linked to such a central part of Austrian life (“Viennese coffeehouse culture” was added to UNESCO’s list of “intangible cultural heritage” in 2011) means the topic has a significance for Austrians that can be hard for outsiders to grasp.
“In Austria, the question of smoking in restaurants can quickly get very emotional,” said Jakob-Moritz Eberl, a researcher on political communication at the University of Vienna. “Coffeehouses have a very specific position in Austrian tradition, and there are very clear positions [on both sides of the issue].”
Under current Austrian law, restaurants and bars must provide a no-smoking environment but can also offer separate smoking areas. But in 2015, Austria’s last government — a grand coalition between the center-left Social Democrats (SPÖ) and the ÖVP — passed a complete smoking ban and set it to take effect this May.
The ÖVP has defended its change of course as a price it had to pay to get concessions from the FPÖ on other topics — such as a strongly pro-EU foreign policy. It has refused to bow to pressure to revisit the coalition deal.
“This is not a point of rational discussion but of political Pakttreue [loyalty to an agreement], it is to prove that the coalition contract is valid and unchangeable even if one of the partners has its difficulties with it,” said Markus Keschmann, the ÖVP’s former director for marketing and campaigning who now works as an outside consultant.
“The only thing we can reach is that the topic will be discussed in the Austrian parliament. That’s all” — Thomas Szekeres, president of the Vienna Medical Association
“This might be important in the near future when the government has to deal with those reform topics which are important especially for ÖVP and Sebastian Kurz, and which probably might be more difficult … for the FPÖ.”
For founders of the pro-ban movement, the issue is primarily about public health, not politics. They frame the ban as a way to ensure non-smokers are protected from harm and say it could save lives.
“We know in other countries that it helps to improve the health of the population … you can avoid cancer cases, and smoking is just harmful to the health of the people,” said Thomas Szekeres, president of the Vienna Medical Association.
“As doctors we are in favor of the health of the people, and therefore it shouldn’t be a question of a political party.”
But data suggests many critics of the government’s move are driven at least in part by their opposition to the ruling parties. An analysis from the Austrian news organization Addendum found support for the petition has been highest in areas with the lowest vote share for the ÖVP and FPÖ, and vice versa.
FPÖ politicians and their supporters say dropping the smoking ban is about defending individual freedom and personal responsibility.
At a parliamentary hearing on the issue last week, liberal economist Barbara Kolm, an expert nominated by the FPÖ, compared the law to the choice between capitalism and socialism. Citizens have “the freedom to damage themselves,” she said.
Vice Chancellor and FPÖ leader Strache, an avid smoker, has dismissed popular opposition to his plans by saying a 2015 private petition against the smoking ban also garnered some 500,000 signatures. (That claim, however, has been questioned and the original papers signed by supporters of that petition have disappeared.)
Chancellor Kurz, for his part, has tried to stay above the fray. When he has spoken about the issue, he has made clear that it is an FPÖ priority, not a priority of the government as a whole. Several other ÖVP politicians, such as former Vice Chancellor and party chairman Reinhold Mitterlehner, have come out in support of the petition.
“I very much understand that the majority is committed to an absolute smoking ban — I myself am a non-smoker,” Kurz told the Kleine Zeitung newspaper. But, he added, “maintaining the current regulations is a coalition condition of the FPÖ.”
Social Democrat leader and former Chancellor Christian Kern, whose party is freshly back in opposition, said the ÖVP’s stance demonstrates its “readiness to put aside all responsibility and reason” to keep the FPÖ happy.
So far, the coalition is staying united. Members of the two parties introduced legislation in parliament at the start of this month to invalidate the planned ban. Last week, they rejected a Social Democrat request for a referendum on the issue.
“The only thing we can reach is that the topic will be discussed in the Austrian parliament. That’s all,” Szekeres said. “But the more people that sign, the more political pressure is being put on the government … they’re claiming that [public] opinion is important for them. If that’s the case, they should [rethink] the whole issue and maybe change their minds.”