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Austria — Parliament

Austrian parliamentarians started packing up in June as the historic parliament building in Vienna was prepped for three years of much-needed repairs. While the generalsanierung (renovation) is underway, all MPs and staff will work out of three temporary semi-transparent pavilions constructed especially for the purpose in front of the Hofburg Palace. The palace itself will see some parliamentary action: for symbolic reasons all the plenary sessions will take place there. The nearby Palais Epstein and several other buildings will be used for storage and office space.

Built in the 1880s in a lavish Greco style by Danish architect Theophil von Hansen as part of the imposing Ringstrasse ensemble, the parliament was bombed during the Second World War and suffered neglect in the decades after. So much so, the MPs have even had to pass a special law to exempt their workplace from standard safety regulations so that the fire department couldn’t evict them on hazard grounds.

“Everything we build has an expiry date,” says Ortfried Friedreich, master builder of Axis, an engineering firm involved in the unprecedented renovation project that will cost the Austrian government upwards of €400m when completed. “It was a very modern building at the end of the 19th century but 130 years of non-stop use have taken their toll.”

The Von Hansen building will be preserved as it is, except for a few rooms that may have to go to meet safety standards. “There’s an old corridor that’s behind one of the plenary halls that has a sort of ‘grandmother’s house’ charm about it,” says Christian Bitschnau, a staffer for The New Austria and Liberal Forum (Neos) party. “There’s also the smoking lounge and some meeting rooms, which are quaint: all wainscoting and no windows. As you walk inside, it feels like you are in a Cold War movie. I like them but fear they will all be removed.”

The pavilions are nothing special architecturally according to Neos MP Claudia Gamon (pictured). “But they give you a different feeling: you can actually see through the walls into what’s happening inside.” Austrian politics may sometimes appear unfair to ordinary citizens but perhaps the buildings can bring a little extra transparency to proceedings – especially with a snap parliamentary election looming on 15 October.

Gamon doesn’t think so. “Maybe I’m a cynic, you tend to become one when you work in parliament. But what could change things is the old building once it’s refurbished.”


Royal rebel

Thailand — Monarchy

The burial of King Bhumipol on 29 October ends Thailand’s year of mourning. It also paves the way for the coronation of his son, Maha Vajiralongkorn, on 1 December.

The new king has a love of fast cars, planes and lavish travel; has been proactive on changes to the structure of royal finances, which top thb1.9bn (€48bn); and has extended diplomatic relations.

Still, there’s a sense that aspects of his unorthodox approach to high office remain unreported amid tightening of strict lese-majesty laws that have landed hundreds of people in jail since mid-2014. Underneath it all, says one Thai commentator, “[the king] just wants to live like a normal person – sometimes”.


Q&A – Graça Fonseca

Assistant secretary of state, Portugal

Portugal debuts the world’s first national participatory budget in October. Citizens will decide how €3m of public money is spent in their regions and Fonseca is the minister behind the scheme.

How does participatory budgeting work?
It allows citizens to decide on public investments in four areas – science, culture, agriculture and life-long learning – via public assemblies and online or sms voting.

What projects were proposed?
We’ve had many relating to identity. For example, imagine you’ve had a wool business for 30 years – a trade that is historically important to the region – but you can’t find young people with the right skills, so you propose promoting wool and funding vocational training.

Any surprises?
The process was offline so people had to get off their couch and discuss their ideas with up to 1,000 other people.


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