25/04/2004 - Results
Heinz Fischer (Social Democrat Party, SPÖ) who was the opinion poll favourite was elected President of the Republic of Austria on 25th April winning 52.41% of the vote versus 47.49% for Benita Ferrero-Waldner (Popular Party, ÖVP). The participation rate rose to 65% i.e. 9 points (8.89) below that recorded during the last presidential election on 19th April 1998.
"This result comprises a sanction for the government", declared Norbert Darabos campaign director for the social democrat candidate, on the announcement of the results. The election of Heinz Fischer confirms the regression of the rightwing in Austria since the last general elections on 24th November 2002. The Popular Party did in fact lose twice on 7th March last during the regional elections in the Länder of Carinthia and Salzburg. In the latter region governor Franz Schausberger (ÖVP) was beaten by Gabi Burgstaller (SPÖ), although the Popular Party had controlled the majority in the Land since 1945.
The election of a social democrat president, whilst the country is governed by a coalition of the right and extreme rightwing, is equivalent to a balance of power which the Austrians have always been very much attached to. Indeed the country has more often than not been governed by government coalitions uniting both left and rightwing forces. Nevertheless we shall have to wait for the results of the European elections on 13th June next to see if the Austrians confirm or invalidate the political re-weighting that they have sketched out during this presidential election.
Sixty-five year old Heinz Fischer, is the ultimate survivor from Chancellor Bruno Kreisky's era (1970-1983), and is the first social democrat president to be elected to lead Austria for eighteen years. Former Research Minister, vice-president of the European Social Party and present second president of the Austrian Parliament (after having been the first for twelve years), the new President promised that once elected he would be the "counterweight" to the ÖVP-FPÖ coalition government led by Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel.
During his campaign Heinz Fischer promoted his ability to listen and the fact he was close to all Austrians. He also said that he supported the country's neutrality whilst Benita Ferrero-Waldner said that she was in favour of Austria being semi-neutral. The Foreign Affairs Minister who has failed in her attempt to become the first woman to be elected at the head of the Austrian state, after having been the first to lead diplomacy, said on Sunday evening that she would maintain her position in government.
The Greens and the Liberal Party (FPÖ) did not present a candidate for this election nor did they provide any indication on how to vote. The Greens had however expressed their preference for Heinz Fischer; the historical leader of the FPÖ, Jörg Haider, had declared publicly that he would vote for Benita Ferrero-Waldner, support that finally seems to have been detrimental to the Popular Party candidate.
We should recall that although the President of the Austrian Republic enjoys some major powers - notably that of dissolving the Nationalrat, the Lower Chamber of Parliament or dismissing the federal government - he only uses them exceptionally and on the suggestion of the organisms themselves.
In 1959, President Adolf Schärf (SPÖ) had refused to appoint a coalition government that brought together the ÖVP conservatives and members of the Association of Independents (VdU), an extreme rightwing movement comprising, amongst others, former members of the Nazi Party. He subsequently agreed to a coalition government bringing together conservatives and social democrats.
Heinz Fischer, who is respected beyond his own political party for his integrity and moderation, will succeed Thomas Klestil on 8th July next.
Result of the presidential election in Austria, 25th April 2004
Participation rate: 65%
Source: Agence France Presse