04/09/2006 - Analysis
On 12th July the Präsidium, the highest office in Parliament that brings together the president of the assembly, Andreas Kohl (Popular Party, ÖVP) and the leaders of the parliamentary groups of the parties represented in the Lower Chamber announced that the next general elections would take place on 1st October. This choice of date meets with the desire of the President of the Republic Heinz Fischer who said that he wanted the shortest and least expensive electoral campaign possible and for the government to be formed before the end of the year.
The election date is particularly important for the "small" parties that have less than three representatives in the "Nationalrat" and who must obtain 2,600 supporting citizens' signatures within a short time in order to be able to run in the elections (the authorities established 26th August as the date when the signatures had to be presented). These obligatorily have to be collated across the entire country: a minimum of 500 in Lower Austria and Vienna, 400 in Upper Austria and Styria, 200 in Carinthia, Tyrol and Salzburg and finally 100 in the Burgenland and Vorarlberg. On August 26th seven parties were finally authorised to take part in the upcoming general elections.
The electoral campaign will be brief since the political parties only have four weeks to convince voters after the school year starts again on 4th September.
The Political System
Parliament has two Chambers: the Nationalrat where 183 federal representatives have a seat and the Bundesrat, which has 64 representatives for the Länder. The members of the Natonalrat are elected by Austrians aged 19 minimum by proportional voting (a minimum of 4% of votes cast is necessary to be represented in Parliament) except for in the capital of Vienna and the Land of Voralberg where majority voting holds sway. It is obligatory to vote in some parts of the country (the Länder of Carinthia, Styria, Tyrol and Voralberg). The number of representatives elected depends on the ratio between the number of voters in the constituency and that of citizens who are domiciled in the constituency in the last census.
Political life has been dominated for a long time by the two main parties: the Popular Party (ÖVP) and the Social Democrat Party (SPÖ). Until the 1970's these two parties rallied 93% of the vote on average in each national election. But two phenomena modified the electoral landscape at the start of the 1980's: the birth of new parties (for example the Greens) and the renaissance of former minority groups (such as the Liberal party- FPÖ created in 1956).
Austria is run with the "Proporzsystem", a code whereby the two main parties share the positions in the public sector equally. In addition to this the social partnership between the management and unions (Professional Chambers bringing together workers and employees, farmers, industrial and trade workers are included in the political decision making process) has comprised a key element in the country's social equilibrium since the end of the Second World War.
Five parties are represented in the Nationalrat at present:
- the Popular Party (ÖVP), a centre right party led by the present Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, which has governed in coalition with the Liberal Party – now called the Alliance for the Future of Austria – since 2000 and has 79 seats;
- the Social Democrat Party (SPÖ), led by Alfred Gusenbauer, governed Austria between 1970-1983 under the Chancellorship of Bruno Kreiski. In 1986 after a disastrous alliance with the FPÖ, Chancellor Franz Vranitzky created an alliance with the conservatives with whom he governed until 1999. The party has 69 representatives;
- the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZO), an extreme rightwing party led by Peter Westenthaler since 21st May 2005 and created on 4th April 2005 by Jörg Haider after a split from the Liberal Party. The party has 16 seats;
- the Liberal Party (FPÖ), led by Heinz Christian Strache lies to the extreme right and only has 2 representatives since it did not want to join BZO.
The Bundesrat is the representative organisation for the Länder. Each Land has its own Constitution and is administered by a government (Landesregierung) and a Diet (Landtag). The Länder are competent in all areas that are not the responsibility of the Federal State: town and country planning, protection of the environment, urban development and transport. Each Land elects (by proportional vote according to a relatively complex system: at least one mandate must go to the party that has the most seats in the regional Diet or if several parties have the same number of seats the mandate goes to the second highest score in the last elections) a proportional number of representatives to the Bundesrat (a minimum of three). Vienna which is the most populous Land has 12 representatives. The presidency of the Bundesrat is assumed by a different Land every six months in alphabetical order.
The general elections on 1st October next are the second since Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel caused a crisis within the EU by joining forces with the Liberal Party led by Jörg Haider in February 2000. The Chancellor's decision led to seven months of quarantine for Austria on the part of its then fourteen European partners until they abandoned their sanctions since they were revealed to be unproductive. Early general elections on 24th November 2002 witnessed a clear decline by the Liberal Party (from 27.22% in 1999 to 10.16% in 2002), enabling Wolfgang Schüssel, who had succeeded in transforming the EU's ostracism into a political advantage, leading all Austrians to back his government, to justify his strategy a posteriori. The Popular Party secured an historical victory becoming the country's leading political force with 42.27% of the vote, indeed its best score since 1966 and an electoral success that had not been seen since the Second World War.
Since then the fall of the extreme right which is still represented in government has continued. The Liberal Party split into two in 2005 after its most extreme wing took over management of the movement. Heinz-Christian Strache is the present president of the FPÖ. In April 2005 Jörg Haider created the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) which replaced the Liberal Party within the government coalition.
The Election Stakes
The Social Democrat Party, the main opposition movement has suffered greatly over the last few months due to the involvement of the Bawag, Austria's fourth biggest bank and the exclusive property of the Austrian unions, in corruption scandals, embezzlement, and illicit speculation. The fraud has been revealed on a daily basis by the press propelling the left into a terrible crisis.
In March 2006 the bankruptcy of the American broker Refco revealed that the Bawag had granted major loans to its head Philip Bennett who had already been accused of embezzling 360 million euro. The bank, which had accumulated three billion euro of debt, also lost millions in speculations in the Caribbean between 1995 and 2000; finally it has been accused of having embezzled funds in order to grant sumptuous incomes to its former directors. These accusations were the source of even greater scandal since in Austria the bank's money comes in part from small savers who belong to the unions. These revelations led on 27th March to the resignation of Fritz Verzetnitsch, former leader of the Federation of Austrian Trade Unions (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB), an organisation that has lost 10,000 members since the crisis. In fine the bank was saved from total bankruptcy when the Federal State intervened and an inquiry was opened by the Viennese courts and which is still ongoing.
Social Democrat leader Alfred Gusenbauer can keep on repeating that his party is not directly involved in the fraud but "the Bawag scandal has grown bigger becoming a true trade union crisis that has dragged the Social Democrat Party in with it. Since then the party has been unable to assert itself", says political analyst Anton Pelicka. Although it stood in the lead in the polls the Social Democrat Party has declined over the last few months falling into second place behind the Popular Party; for the time being the Bawag scandal is dominating all other themes in the electoral campaign.
Alfred Gusenbauer has tried to react firmly to the Bawag crisis but his attitude and some of his decisions, like for example the exclusion of the trade union leaders from the electoral lists of the Social Democrat Party have not met with unanimous approval within the SPÖ. The new president of the Federation of Austrian Trade Unions, Rudolf Hundstorfer, qualified the social democrat's choice of excluding the trade union leaders as "selfish". He said that the unions and the social democrats would continue to work together. "Our enemy is one and the same: the present government", he maintained. The SPÖ leader also pushed Wilhelm Beck, leader of the social democrat trade union (FSG) one of the branches of the Federation of Austrian Trade Unions, to resign. After the appointment of Wilhelm Haberzettl as his replacement the FSG announced that its members would not stand in the general elections on 1st October next but that they would support the Social Democrat Party during the electoral campaign.
On 26th August last Alfred Gusenbauer entered the electoral campaign by starting a tour that will take him to several towns in Austria over the long month to come.
At present the Popular Party is the main beneficiary of the scandal afflicting its social democrat adversaries. Behind the SPÖ at the beginning of the year the government party took the lead and is now four points ahead in the polls. However the Popular Party has not been completely spared by the Bawag scandal since Finance Minister Karl-Heinz Grasser, nicknamed "the Austrians' favourite son-in-law" or "the glamour Minister" for his looks and lifestyle (after many romantic escapades, Karl-Heinz Grasser married Fiona Swarovski, the heir to the Swarovski crystal company in October 2005), recently found himself in the middle of the financial scandal that shocked the country. The minister came into the full glare of the media for having accepted the invitation of Julius Meinl, the co-owner of the Meinl Bank to spend two days' holiday on his yacht on board which was also the (Austrian born) American banker Wolfgang Flöttl who took care of the funds invested in the Bawag. However this is by no means Karl-Heinz Grasser's first experience of scandal having survived several personal accusations including (of which he was ultimately cleared) the funding of his own Internet site with State money in June 2005.
At the beginning of the electoral campaign the Popular Party has found easy support in its economic results and in the reforms that have been applied making Austria the fourth richest State in the European Union. GDP growth is now higher than the European average. It rose to 1.8% in 2005 and is due to reach 2.5% in 2006. Indeed Vienna is the first to benefit from the positive effects of the economic boom experienced by its neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe. During the six years that it has governed the country Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel's government, that undertook major cuts in pensions and which privatised many companies, also succeeded in reducing the budgetary deficit. "Austria. The place where you feel good", "Austria. Promising prospects for the future", these are the simple, direct campaign slogans employed by the Popular Party in the general elections.
The two extreme rightwing parties, the Alliance for the Future of Austria and the Liberal Party are wildly trying to outbid each other, fighting about their name, their participation in televised debates – to summarize, about their respective place in the electoral campaign. The Alliance for the Future of Austria is adamant about being called "liberal", a term which is rejected by the Liberal Party which has had this name since its creation in 1956, the exclusive use of which it aims to keep. For the time being the lists put forward by the Alliance for the Future of Austria bear the following slogan: "The Liberals, Westenthaler List, Alliance for the Future of Austria". Another bone of contention between the two parties is the Liberal Party's participation in pre-electoral TV debates. Indeed the party has not had a parliamentary group since June last (the majority of its MPs went over to the Alliance for the Future of Austria) and ordinarily it cannot be invited to the debates. However the Federal Council of Communication has said that given the circumstances both extreme rightwing parties would be allowed to take part. Finally the Alliance for the Future of Austria has just been granted a seat with the Federal Electoral Authority, an organisation that supervises the running of the elections. The Authority comprises 12 members including the Home Minister and 9 people appointed by the political parties represented in Parliament. The Liberal Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria both requested a seat with this organisation; Heinz Christian Strache's party was not allowed to join.
The Alliance for the Future of Austria's electoral programme includes ten points focussing on security, law, order and social policy. "Our main aim is to take voters from the Social Democrat Party", declared Peter Westenthaler. In addition to this on 14th August Jörg Haider put forward a referendum on the euro and the European Union. "Austrians should have another opportunity to decide whether they really want to be in the EU or to become a sovereign, neutral State again", declared the populist leader.
The Liberal Party has chosen a position to the right of the Alliance for the Future of Austria. Saying that it is expecting attacks on the part of its rival in the next national election the party has requested the presence of OSCE observers on 1st October next.
The other "small" parties running in the election are trying to position themselves in a specific niche. The Greens now maintain they are a party of the centre hoping to offer an alternative to Popular Party voters as well as those from the Social Democrat Party. Relations between the ecologists and the latter recently became rather strained with the Greens accusing the leftwing party of giving up too easily in the face of the government. Energy, the fight against poverty and education will the leitmotif in the ecologists' campaign.
MEP Hans-Peter Martin from the Social Democrat Party will also stand in the general elections with his List of Citizens for Democracy, Control and Justice. During the European elections on 13th June 2004 he came third winning 14.04% of the vote and 2 of the 18 seats Austria has in the European Parliament. In an interview in the Krone, he insisted on the name of his List: "I am interested in citizens' rights more than in the domination of political parties". The MEP announced that his aim was to clean up the political arena and to reduce the number of abstentionists. He also said that he was in favour of creating a grand coalition after the general elections. Social Democrat leader Alfred Gusenbauer expressed his concern about the election of Hans-Peter Martin to the Nationalrat. "Everyone has the right to be a candidate to a seat in Parliament. But I am worried that the Wolfgang Schüssel's votes of protest against the government will transform Martin's parliamentary group into perpetual opponents. We shall lose votes to Martin. Hence anyone who really does want to vote against the government in office has to vote for the Social Democrat Party", he declared.
Finally the Communist Party (KPÖ) wants to increase investments in areas such as education, retirement pensions and the social sector; it will fight for the introduction of a tax on millionaires. The communist party suggests that anyone with over a million euro should pay a tax of 5% "to ensure social security and the fight against poverty". The communists started a national petition for this which they hope to address to the Nationalrat in the hope their request will be taken into consideration. Communists created a surprise in the regional elections in Styria on 2nd October last year winning 6.3% of the vote and entering a regional Diet for the first time in history and this in a particularly conservative Land, the stronghold of the Popular Party for the last sixty years. The communist list was led by Ernest Kaltenegger, a charismatic candidate who is extremely popular due to the fact that he regularly distributes half of his salary to the poor people in his region. According to the latest survey about political confidence undertaken by APA/OGM, Ernest Kaltenegger is the most popular politician in his Land.
Many believe that the present government coalition led by Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (Popular Party-Alliance for the Future of Austria) has little chance of surviving the election on 1st October. The division of the extreme right and the presence of "small lists" such as the one led by MEP Hans-Peter Martin might turn the Greens into the winners of this election.
For the time being the Popular Party is still in the lead in terms of voting intentions in the polls with 40% of the vote followed by the Social Democrat Party (36%). According to the same polls the Greens are due to win 12% the Liberal Party 8% and the Alliance for the Future of Austria 3%.
In addition to this Wolfgang Schüssel is the Chancellor preferred by 30% of Austrians whilst 16% would choose Alfred Gusenbauer.
Reminder of the general elections results on 24th November 2002
Participation rate: 80.48%
Source: Embassy of Austria in Paris