24/11/2002 - D-7
Just one week before the early general elections on 24th November the gap between the country's two main political movements, the Popular Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democrat Party (SPÖ), is a very close one. According to the latest opinion poll published by the News magazine at the beginning of the week, the Popular Party is in the lead with 39% of the intention to vote, ahead of the Social Democrat Party who are credited with 38% of the vote. The Greens are due to come third with 12% of the vote followed by the Liberal Party (FPÖ) who have 9% of the intention to vote. However, 20% of the electorate say they are undecided and 10% will decide on the day of the election.
According to the opinion polls the Liberal Party is losing ground on a daily basis with its former leader Jörg Haider striving to "use all of his influence to cause the downfall of his political movement" according to Emmerich Talos, a political analyst at the University of Vienna. At the end of October the party's new leader Mathias Reichhold had to resign following health problems. He was replaced by Herbert Haupt who was appointed as interim president. At present he is Wolfgang Schüssel government's Social Affairs Minister and also close to Jörg Haider. On 8th November the party's new president declared that the FPÖ would not take part in any government coalition if it won less than 15% of the vote, a score that it seems far from being able to achieve just one week from the election.
When Jörg Haider last visited Saddam Hussein, the third visit in under a year after the ones in February and May - incidentally the journey in February was the start of a crisis within the Liberal Party - a new scandal emerged within the Austrian political community, including certain members of the FPÖ. After the last meeting between the populist leader and the Iraqi dictator the Liberal Party dropped below the 10% mark in the intention to vote. Another sign of misfortune for the extreme rightwing movement is the mediocre result achieved in the local elections that were held in the province of Burgenland on 6th October. The FPÖ only won 5.1% of the vote versus 9.2% in the last local election in 1997, hence losing 107 town council seats. Although these local elections do not indicate how the Austrians will vote nationally they do show that the extreme rightwing is losing ground amongst part of the public opinion. Finally with its president Herbert Haupt as spokesman the Liberal Party has declared that it is against the enlargement of the European Union "as things stand today", and thereby makes it even more improbable that it will take part in any government coalition after the elections on 24th November.
"The catastrophic score that is expected will strengthen Jörg Haider's hold on his troops " confirms Anton Pelinka, professor of political science at the University of Innsbruck, Emmerich Talos supports this view and stresses that "the only one who can now save the party from disaster is Jörg Haider". The former Liberal Party leader also made a comeback during the electoral campaign on 8th November when he took part in a meeting that was not in his stronghold of Carinthia. The populist leader continues to say however that he does not want to take back the leadership of his movement.
The opinion polls declare that the country's two main political movements are almost equal; the ÖVP has however shown that it has taken an upward trend over the last few days. It was not only the Liberal party that suffered another heavy blow when Karl Heinz Grasser, the Finance Minister went over to Wolfgang Schüssel's Popular Party on 12th November it was equally hard for the Social Democrat Party. Karl Heinz Grasser is one of the most respected and most popular FPÖ leaders and a minister who is particularly appreciated within the Austrian business community due to his activities in government. The Finance Minister managed to clean up public finances and succeeded in redeeming an unprecedented budget surplus (representing 0.3% of the GDP last year). This stabilisation has however been accomplished thanks to an increase in taxes. In addition to this the public deficit established itself once again in 2002 (it is due to reach 1.5% of the GDP).
Although Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel has never ruled out renewing the government coalition with the Liberal Party this possibility does however appear to be increasingly improbable. The Popular Party is therefore condemned to win the election if it wants to continue to govern the country. If the Social Democrat Party wins it might ally itself with the Greens or continue as tradition would have it and govern with the Popular Party. Its leader Alfred Gusenbauer has however declared that he would not govern with the present Prime Minister Wolfgang Schüssel whom he has never forgiven for having created an alliance with the Liberal Party. The Greens, led by Alexander van der Bellen, have recorded a high number of intentions to vote, 12% (against 7.10% of the votes cast during the last elections on 3rd October 1999), - this should however be taken with precaution since the ecologists usually achieve high scores in the pre-electoral polls but only end up with lower results at the ballot. The Greens hope however to achieve a higher score than that of the Liberal Party and to win their place as the third political movement in Austria.
On Thursday 14th November, the two candidates most likely to lead the next government, either Wolfgang Schüssel, leader of the Popular Party and the present Prime Minister or Alfred Gusenbauer, leader of the Social Democrat Party, confronted each other on TV. Although this TV debate may influence the choice of those who are still undecided, we shall however have to wait until 24th November in order to discover the name of the victor of the general election whose outcome is unpredictable.