Green professor leads party to the polls

February 13, 1998

ALEXANDER Van der Bellen faces the new semester with some apprehension. The 54-year-old professor in political economy has his lecture notes prepared, the students are motivated and exam marking is no big problem.

"Sasha", as he is known to his friends, has just been elected leader of the Austrian Green party, fighting for political survival.

His task is to ensure that the Greens get at least 4 per cent of the votes at next year's general election so that they can be returned to parliament. In 1995, the party scraped in with 4.8 per cent and has since been plagued by squabbles and sectarian disputes. Professor Van der Bellen believes the Greens could poll about 10 per cent.

Professor Van der Bellen's family has been used to challenges. His forefathers emigrated from Holland to Russia at the time of Peter the Great, attracted by the Tsar's policy of "westernisation".

In 1917, with Russia in revolutionary turmoil, the family moved to Estonia and then in 1940 emigrated once again, this time to the Austrian Tyrol. "If you ask me what nationality I am," he says, "I just reply European."

This background has given Professor Van der Bellen an empathy with immigrants, and he is an enthusiastic supporter of the eastward enlargement of the European Union. He believes money would be better invested in this than Austrian membership of Nato, being considered by the centre-left coalition government.

Professor Van der Bellen is a newcomer to politics. He studied at the University of Innsbruck, was a research fellow in Berlin and since 1980 has held a chair in political economy in Vienna.

In 1990 he became dean of the social sciences faculty. It was only in 1993 that he became active in politics and a year later entered parliament on the Green party list.

Students and colleagues were at first amused to see the "Green Prof" on television and then in parliament but "they are all very supportive". He has a full programme of lectures ,which for an Austrian professor means about six hours a week.

An opponent of tuition fees, he thinks the younger generation will suffer enough from recent pensions reform and should not have to make further sacrifices.

Student numbers are going down, a result of poor job prospects and government cuts. Almost half of a student's income can be expected to go on accommodation. If fees were to be introduced, the Green leader would like to see the administration of the scheme kept with the universities and not the ministry of finance.

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