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Austria - General Elections

General elections in Austria, 24th November

General elections in Austria, 24th November

24/11/2002 - Analysis

Populist Jörg Haider, who has been an agitator on the Austrian political scene since 1986, became that of the whole of Europe after the high scores achieved by the FPÖ, the party he led in the general elections on 3rd October 1999. This situation was exacerbated by the FPÖ's entry into the government coalition led by Wolfgang Schüssel, leader of the Popular Party (ÖVP) on 4th February 2000. Although his movement was relegated to third position the ÖVP's leader was the first conservative Chancellor in Austria for over thirty years.

Immediately the Union imposed unprecedented political sanctions on Austria in an attempt to isolate Jörg Haider's movement, the members of which were appointed to the posts of Vice Chancellor, Minister of Finance, Defence, Transport, Infrastructures, Social Affairs as well as Secretary of State for Health and Tourism. For seven months the Austrian government and its diplomats were banished from Europe by the 14 other member states of the Union, before it was finally realised that the sanctions were ineffectual. These were lifted on 14th September 2000. During this seven month period Wolfgang Schüssel was able to transform the European Union's ostracism into a political advantage federating all Austrians in support of his government.

Jörg Haider, governor of Carinthia chose not to enter Government (not because of the European sanctions but rather in order to continue his opposition politics) and left the FPÖ's leadership in the hands of Suzanne Riess-Passer, who became the first woman to occupy the post of Vice-Chancellor in Austria. Nevertheless as governor and member of the Coalition Council that defines the party's main political orientations Jörg Haider never ceased being the real leader of the populist movement. This background role was difficult for this almost pathologically narcissistic man to uphold - his true ambition being to govern Austria. When he demanded the closure of the Czech nuclear plant in Temelin in January 2002 he caused a rift with the Czech Prime Minister, Milos Zeman, and a government crisis. A month later after a controversial trip to Bagdad when he met with Saddam Hussein, Jörg Haider announced his "final and irrevocable" withdrawal from Austrian politics before changing his mind just a few days later. The divisions between the Party's factions that had been dissimulated for the past two years came to the surface once more. The movement's veterans, firm supporters of Jörg Haider and in favour of a "strategy of tension" by which the FPÖ must lead the opposition whilst they are still in power, are now against the "modernists" who want to turn the Party into a true government movement.

The Fall of the Government Coalition

On 25th August Jörg Haider caused a new political crisis when he accused the Government of having betrayed its electoral promises after it decided not to lower taxes in 2002. He then threatened to launch a petition to have a parliamentary debate and the organisation of a referendum on this question. Suzanne Riess-Passer Vice-Chancellor, backed by the FPÖ's leadership, opposed the drop in taxes that, according to her, had become impossible due to the poor state of public finances and reconstruction requirements created by the summer floods. She did however accept the Government's idea to organise a referendum on the subject. Again on 31st August Jörg Haider announced that he was "finally withdrawing" from politics in order to allow his party to work in peace. Suzanne Riess- Passer and the FPÖ government members, tired of the governor of Carinthia's behaviour decided on confrontation. She threatened to resign if her government activities did not receive the Party's open support. The FPÖ's leaders, who had all been appointed by Jörg Haider did not have any difficulty in bringing together a majority of signatures in demand of an extraordinary congress. On 8th September in the face of the FPÖ's rejection Suzanne Riess-Passer chose to resign from her functions within the government coalition. She was followed by two ministers, Karl-Heinz Grasser and Herbert Scheibner (The Transport Minister, Mathias Reichhold, followed suite two days later) as well as the liberal group's leader in the National Assembly. The movement recorded numerous defections on a federal level. The following day, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel estimated the effects of his ministers' defections "The FPÖ has to answer a vital question: govern or oppose. To do both is impossible". By this he announced the end of his Government and called for early elections. These have been organised for 24th November.

An extraordinary FPÖ congress was called on 21st September in order to elect a new leader and to plan the movement's electoral campaign. Jörg Haider appeared to be the favourite to take over the party leadership that was now controlled by his supporters. But after having said that he was interested in this he gave up the idea. Mathias Reichhold, a former MP and Minister of Transport of the Schüssel government was elected leader of the Liberal Party (FPÖ) by 92.2% of the movements delegates.

The Austrian Political System

The Austrian Parliament has two houses: the Nationalrat where 183 federal representatives have a seat and the Bundesrat that brings together the 64 representatives of the Länder. The members of the Nationalrat are elected by Austrians aged 19 and over by proportional vote ( a minimum of 4% of the votes cast are required to win a seat) except for in Vienna and Voralberg where the majority vote prevails. It is obligatory to vote in some parts of the country (Carinthia, Styria, Tyrol and Voralberg). The number of representatives is not a fixed one, and depends on the number of voters in the constituency and the citizens who can justify permanent residence there during the last census.

Austrian political life has been dominated by two major movements for a long time - these being the SPÖ, Social Democrat Party, and the ÖVP, the Popular Party. Until the 1970's these two movements mobilised on average 93% of the vote each time there was a general election. In 1986 the distribution of the vote dropped to 86% and reached 66% during the general elections in 1995. At the start of the 1980's some new movements emerged, like the Greens, and some managed to make a late break through on the political scene (the Liberal Party was created in 1956 but for a long time it only comprised a minority movement on the Austrian right) clouding the traditional divisions in a corporatist democracy and giving preference to social consensus (the professional Chambers of Commerce that unite workers and employees, farmers, and industrial workers were associated in the political decision making process). The country functions according to the Proporzsystem, whereby the two main parties share out equitably public sector positions. Until the end of the 1960's the level of membership to a political party lay between 26 and 30% of the electorate. This fell to 18% at the beginning of the 90's. Likewise the number of Austrians who have demonstrated their unconditional support for a party dropped from 65 to 34% between 1969 and 1990.

Four political movements are represented in the Nationalrat :

The Social Democrat Party (SPÖ), led by Alfred Gusenbauer, the only movement in power between 1970 and 1983 under the leadership of Chancellor Bruno Kreiski. In 1986 after a disastrous liaison with the FPÖ, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky formed an alliance with the conservatives that enabled both parties to rule together until 1999;

The Popular Party (ÖVP), a centre right movement, Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel's party who is at present in power;

The Liberal Party (FPÖ), led by Mathias Reichhold, member of the ruling government coalition, torn apart by internal problems that in turn led to a government crisis and ultimately to early elections;

The Greens (Die Grünen), a left wing movement

The Liberal Forum that was created in February 1993 by Heide Schmidt, a former FPÖ representative, after a split in Jörg Haider's party, did not win the obligatory 4% to be represented in the Nationalrat during the last general elections on 3rd October 1999.

For its part the Bundesrat is the Länder's representative institution. Each Land elects a number of representatives proportional to its population onto the National Council (a minimum of three); Vienna, that comprises the most populous Land has 12 representatives. The Bundesrat members are elected by proportional vote by each Land's regional council according to a relatively complex system (at least one mandate has to be granted to the movement that has the highest number of seats within the regional council or if several parties have the same number of seats, the second highest number during the previous elections). The presidency of the Bundesrat is undertaken by a different Land every six months according alphabetic order.

The Election Stakes

Mathias Reichhold will lead the Liberal Party into the general elections on 24th November. The new leader of the FPÖ formerly one of Jörg Haider's lieutenants refuses to be thought of as "Carinthia's governor's puppet". He task is not an easy one. He has inherited a broken party and he has little time in which to put it back on its feet. As soon as he was elected he persuaded congress that the "Knittelfeld Conspirators" (the names of the FPÖ members who opposed Suzanne Riess-Passer and who caused the fall of the government coalition) should be withdrawn from all governing bodies. He also succeeded in preventing Ewald Stadler, the Republic's ombudsman and president of the Austro-Iraqui Friendship Society - who was at the source of a recent polemic that "called for Austria's so-called liberation by the Allies" - from being a party candidate in the general elections. Likewise the most radical elements in the Liberal Party who are opposed to the enlargement of the European Union in the East have been thrown out. Finally he declared, "in the future I expect Mr Haider to avoid interfering in the running of the party's affairs". In order to demonstrate his determination to succeed in bringing together the different FPÖ factions more clearly, Mathias Reichhold has rallied four vice presidents representing all of the trends within the Liberal Party. Fiscal reform, the closure of the Czech nuclear plant in Temelin and the cancellation of purchasing Eurofighter combat planes comprise the main themes in the FPÖ campaign. According to Anton Pelinka professor of political science at the University of Innsbruck, Austria is possibly witnessing "the beginning of the end" of Jörg Haider's political career. No one is daring to guarantee this however since the populist leader's changes of mind have been so numerous in the past. The governor of Carinthia recently announced his candidature in the general elections in the last position (and therefore ineligible) on the FPÖ list in his province, only to withdraw from the race after Mathias Reichhold threatened to resign if he maintained his candidature.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel's ÖVP and the FPÖ will have to defend their achievements before the electorate. After years of suffering the structural deficit of public finances the government coalition managed (by increasing taxes) to gain an unprecedented budgetary excess (representing 0.3% of the GDP last year). This was before a deficit of around 1.5% of the GDP established itself in 2002. Over the last two years unemployment has increased rising from 3.6% when the government took over power to 4.2% in August. The attribution of family allowance (436 euros per month per child) is the Liberal Party's strong point and came into effect in January this year. Austria is however one of the European Union's country's with the lowest birth rate, also this social policy led to an increase in ambulance fees and the taxation of daily compensation granted to people who have accidents. The government can pride itself on the immigration law signed in July that forces all non EU foreigners living in Austria since 1st January 1998 to learn German (they have to pay half, the State finances the rest). If the immigrants refuse they risk having their residence permit withdrawn and losing their rights to social and unemployment benefits. Around 25,000 people are affected by this law. Most Austrians (65% according to the polls) are in favour of this measure.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel declared that he did not rule out renewing his alliance with the Liberal Party if the movement managed to "clarify its positions". A month from the election no party seems to be in a position to rule alone. Three potential coalitions are foreseeable:

- a victory by the opposition and the constitution of an SPÖ-Green coalition, that does not especially arouse enthusiasm amongst the Austrians,

- the renewal of the ÖVP-FPÖ alliance

- the return of a more traditional SPO-OVP coalition.

According to an opinion poll that appeared mid October in the magazine Profil, the two main movements (ÖVP and SPÖ) would each win 37% of the intention to vote whilst the Greens and the Liberal Party are credited with 13% each, representing an exceptional breakthrough for the ecologist party and the collapse of the FPÖ that won 27% of the vote in 1999.

Hence play is very much open in this upcoming general election.

Will the Austrians choose the return to a political system of traditional alliances between the two main movements - the Social Democrat Party and the Popular Party or will they sanction the 1999 change, by either renewing the government coalition or by bringing a new coalition to power comprising the SPÖ and the Greens?

Reminder of the general election results of 3rd October 1999

Participation : 80.4%

Embassy of Austria - Paris
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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