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Austria - General Elections

General elections in Austria, a round up one week before the vote

General elections in Austria, a round up one week before the vote

25/09/2006 - D-7

On 1st October next the Austrians are being called to vote to renew the 183 federal representatives of the Nationalrat, the lower chamber in Parliament. This election in which seven political parties have been given permission to participate is the second since Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel (Popular Party, ÖVP) caused a crisis within the EU by joining forces with the Liberal Party (FPÖ) led by Jörg Haider in 2000. The country was then placed "in quarantine" for a few months by the EU before the latter finally gave up its unfruitful sanctions. The last general elections on 24th November 2002 justified the Chancellor's strategy a posteriori since the Liberal Party recorded a clear decline – dropping from 27.22% in 1999 to 10.6% in 2002.

Wolfgang Schüssel started his electoral campaign in Graz the country's second biggest town and capital of the Land of Styria; he revealed that he was confident about the result of the battle. He promoted the excellent economic results achieved by his government: the GDP growth level that is due to reach 3% in 2006 and the unemployment rate which is dropping and now lies at 4.6%. "We have even overtaken the Americans in terms of growth", said the Chancellor promising to continue this route. He maintained that youth unemployment would, in the case of victory, comprise one of his government's priorities. To fight against this he plans to sign a pact with the Chairman of the Economic Chamber, Christoph Leitl, whereby he promises to find employment for every young person within three months.

At the end of August the Chancellor found himself at the centre of a mini scandal when the press revealed that he had used the services of an illegally employed nurse in the same way as the President of the Republic Heinz Fischer, to take care of his mother-in-law, who has since died. Wolfgang Schüssel denied having done anything illegal explaining that he had not been informed of the nurse's situation. Around 40,000 people, mostly young women from the Czech Republic and Slovakia work in Austria as nurses and assistants mainly for old people, whom the overwhelmed public services cannot take care of. The number of elderly requiring assistance has in fact doubled over the last fifteen years and now lies at 600,000. According to estimates this figure is due to double again in the next twenty years. The Austrians call these nurses "the Angels from the East".

As a result of this Wolfgang Schüssel declared that restrictions on the free movement and employment of workers from the States of Central and Eastern Europe should be lifted with regard to nurses employed in geriatrics. "Without these 40,000 foreign workers, who are in Austria illegally nothing will work short term", declared the Minister for the Economy and Employment, Martin Bartenstein (ÖVP), who asked that the case against the Chancellor and the President of the Republic be dropped.

As for the opposition although the Social Democrat Party leader (SPÖ), Alfred Gusenbauer admitted that "Austria isn't doing so badly" and that "It is a rich country" he maintained at the same time that the number of people enjoying the wealth was decreasing: "There has not been any real increase in salaries for the last ten years", he declared. He stressed that youth unemployment had doubled under Chancellor Schüssel's government and decided to make this theme one of the key points of his campaign.

Alfred Gusenbauer also accused his adversaries of populism reproaching their long alliance with the extreme rightwing. The Social Democrat Party recently formed an electoral alliance with the Liberal Forum (LIF) in view of the general elections on 1st October. Alexander Zach, the leader of the "small" centrist party compared this union to that of Romano Prodi's winning formula of combining several Italian leftwing and centrist parties. However political analyst Peter Filzmaier believes that this alliance is a dangerous wager that might attract some voters but distance others who might accuse the social democrats of joining forces with a liberal party. Conversely Wolfgang Bachmayer from the pollster OGM and political analyst Günther Ogris believe that this union will enable the Social Democrat Party to adopt a modern image.

The Greens are continuing to attack the two majority parties accusing them of undertaking an electoral campaign that is far from the spirit of the political battlefield. The ecologist movement says that it is ready to take part in a future government under certain conditions. It is requesting for example the cancellation of the purchase of fighter planes made by EADS (Eurofighter). The Greens who, unlike the two main parties, are not putting forward tax reductions have made investments in education their priority for the next term in office. Giving up the Eurofighter contract would enable the necessary budgetary savings for these new investments to be achieved. The Greens are requesting the suspension of university enrolment fees and are refusing to take part in a government with the present Education Minister, Elisabeth Gehrer (ÖVP) whose policy they qualify as "disastrous". Finally the ecologists would like to end Austria's dependency on fossil fuels by 2050 and to do this they are proposing a development programme of alternative energies and the elaboration of a plan to go hand in hand with the necessary change in energy consumption habits over the next few years.

The Liberal Party won the battle over the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) by being appointed as the third political party on the list of those running in the general elections. The Alliance for the Future of Austria will take fifth place behind the Greens. The party, led by Peter Westenthaler, has however been given permission run under the label of "the Liberals, Westenthaler List, Alliance for the Future of Austria".

The Communist Party leader (KPÖ), Mirko Messner, says that he is confident of his party's future results, notably in Styria where the Communists achieved an all time national first by entering the Diet in the regional elections on 2nd October 2005. The N°1 on the KPÖ list did not hide his disappointment in Ernest Kaltenegger, the popular leader of the Communist Party of Styria who refused to lead the list in the upcoming general elections. The last representative of the Communist Party was elected to the National Council in 1959.

Finally and as he did in his campaign for the European elections on 13th June 2004 Hans-Peter Martin, leader of the Citizens List for Democracy, Control and Justice, intends to denounce the abuse and wastage which many politicians are guilty of and to clean up the political life at the Nationalrat.

Last spring Austria's fourth biggest bank and exclusive property of the Austrian unions – the Bawag - was involved in corruption affairs, financial fraud and illicit speculation causing a national scandal; the Social Democrat Party which was in the lead in the polls at the time was plunged into a terrible crisis since it was closely linked to the unions. The main opposition party which has now been taken over by the Popular Party has found it difficult to assert itself, since the Bawag scandal has never been wiped from the political arena.

Just one week before the general elections the latest polls still show the Popular Party (ÖVP) led by Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel as the winners on 1st October. The ÖVP is due to win 39% of the vote versus 34% for the SPÖ. The Greens are credited with 11% of the vote, the Liberal Party, 8%, the Citizens' List for Democracy, Control and Justice, 4% and the Alliance for the Future of Austria, 3%.

In addition to this Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel enjoys greater popularity in the polls than his adversary: 38% of positive opinions versus 26% for Alfred Gusenbauer.

Wolfgang Schüssel, the probable winner, might however find it difficult to form a government coalition due to a possible dispersal of the voting. The polls estimate the share of the electorate who will be tempted to make a protest vote or who might turn to the lists of the two extreme rightwing parties or that led by Hans Peter Martin, and even the Communist Party at around 20%. As for the Greens the demanding conditions they have set in order to form a future government might make it impossible for any government alliance with the ecologists and the Popular Party likewise the Social Democrats. According to the polls around half of the electorate is ready to vote for a different party from the one they voted for in the last general election on 24th November 2002.

Many analysts are betting on another government alliance bringing together the Popular Party and the Alliance for the Future of Austria. Just a few weeks ago, Chancellor Schüssel declared in the Salzburger Nachrichten: "If people vote for me and if negotiations lead to an agreement, Peter Westenthaler might be Vice-Chancellor." The Chancellor maintained that the Alliance for the Future of Austria had been strengthened by the appointment of Peter Westenthaler as its leader. "Together with the Ministers Hubert Gorbach, Ursula Haubner and Karin Gastinger and the head of their parliamentary group, Herbert Scheibner, they have an attractive team", he said, adding however that what he was saying was "in no way a promise that we shall form a coalition". For his part the very popular mayor of the capital Vienna, Michael Häupl (SPÖ), said that he did not believe in the victory of his party. "The most likely coalition is black-green, i.e. between the Popular Party and the Greens", he maintained on 19th September last. Finally the possibility of a grand coalition ÖVP-SPÖ cannot be ignored, since sharing power is part of Austrian political tradition.
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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