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Surprise victory by the social democrats in the general elections

Surprise victory by the social democrats in the general elections

02/10/2006 - Results

To everyone's surprise the Social Democrat Party (SPÖ) won the general elections in Austria on 1st October. It won 35.71% of the vote i.e. 1.2 points less than during the last general election on 24th November 2002, taking 68 seats (-1). It took the lead over Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel's Popular Party (ÖVP) in power for the last six years; the latter won 34.22% of the vote i.e. 8 points less than in 2002 and 66 seats (-13). The SPÖ won in five of the nine Länder in the country, notably in the East whilst the Popular Party holds the majority in four regions, three of which lie in the West. These results are contrary to the forecast delivered by all of the most recent opinion polls.

The result of the election was even more difficult to foresee since the electoral campaign was disrupted by the Bawag scandal (the country's fourth biggest bank, the exclusive property of the Federation of Unions (ÖGB), the SPÖ's partner, is accused of corruption, embezzlement and illicit speculation) which pushed many socio-economic issues, such as the fight against unemployment or pensions into the background. In addition to this the division of the rightwing forces and the creation of the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) by Jörg Haider on 4th April 2005 led to reorganisation of the political arena that was not easy to decipher.

Jörg Haider's former movement the Liberal Party (FPÖ), led by Heinz-Christian Strache is still the country's third leading party. It won 11.21% of the vote and 21 seats. The Greens follow closely behind achieving their best result ever with 10.49% of the vote (+1.4 points in comparison with 2002) and 20 seats (+4) and the Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ), led by Peter Westenthaler, which with 4.2% (8 seats) has just risen above the vital 4% threshold, necessary to be represented in Parliament.

With 17% of the vote in Vienna as well as in the Land of Vorarlberg (15.6%) the Greens came third. The party led by Peter Westenthaler achieved its best result in Carinthia, the Land of its founder Jörg Haider, where it won 25.4% of the vote. Both extreme rightwing parties together won 15.3% of the vote i.e. 5 points more than the Liberal Party four years ago.

MEP Hans-Peter Martin did not manage to repeat the success achieved in the European elections on 13th June 2004. His List of Citizens for Democracy, Control and Justice only won 2.83% of the vote. "Mr Clean" from the European Parliament, who just a few days before the elections was accused by a report released by the European Union's anti-fraud office OLAF for having received unjustified indemnities totalling 190,000 euro, failed to get into the Nationalrat. Finally the Communist Party (KPÖ) won 1.01% of the vote.

The participation rate, 6.28 points less than those recorded in the last general elections on 24th November 2002, was the lowest every recorded since the Second World War; it rose to 74.2%.

The final result of the election will not be released however before 9th October after the voting slips of 400,000 people who voted by proxy - by post, by mail or from abroad - have been counted.

"I have never given up hope. I have always said that there would be a surprise on Sunday. The electorate has shown a need for change," declared the Social Democrat leader Alfred Gusenbauer when the results had been announced. "The government has been rejected by the electorate. We are ahead. We were told that we had lost but people have renewed their faith in us," said the SPÖ Secretary General, Norbert Darabos triumphantly.

Although it appeared to be swamped by the Bawag bank scandal the Social Democrat Party did therefore succeed in convincing the Austrians that it embodied a credible alternative to the policy adopted by Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel, notably in the domain of education and the fight against unemployment. Its leader, Alfred Gusenbauer, travelled the country criticising the social results achieved by the ruling government coalition, generator of inequalities within the population; he made the unemployment of young people one of the main themes of his campaign. "People in Austria think that we are rich, wealthy country but these riches are not distributed equally enough and the situation needs balancing out. The Austrian people would like greater equity and more justice. We shall not disappoint them," he said.

46 year old Alfred Gusenbauer who originates from a modest background is a doctor of political science. He committed himself at an early age to politics and when he was 17 he was the socialist youth leader. A close colleague of Chancellor Bruno Kreisky (1911-1990) - "We have a father-son relationship. On the one hand he was a model, on the other we argued," he declared when speaking of the former Chancellor – in 1989 Gusenbauer became the deputy chairman of the Socialist International chaired by Willy Brandt. He then became senator then MP during the 1990's before becoming the leader of the Social Democrat Party in 2000 after the resignation of Viktor Klima. After the initial failure of the general elections on 24th November 2002 which witnessed the re-election of Wolfgang Schüssel as head of government, Alfred Gusenbauer occupied the place his "master" Bruno Kreisky had occupied for nearly thirteen years (1970-1983).

Declaring that he was "not bitter" but expressing his "great disappointment", Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel acknowledged his defeat and congratulated the opposition on its electoral victory. "Let's look at things one by one. Firstly we should ask who won these elections and it is probably Alfred Gusenbauer and I congratulate him whole heartedly," he said on TV. As for the Secretary General of the Popular Party Reinhold Lopatka, he acknowledged that his party had suffered "serious defeat". The Popular Party which campaigned on its economic results (growth rate of 3.2% in September and an unemployment level of 4.8%) and by exploiting the popularity of its leader recorded a dramatic decline which was contrary to all forecasts made by the polls. The ÖVP's electoral experts said the reason for their defeat was the low participation rate and the great number of protest parties.

Chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel was the source of a crisis in the EU in February 2000 when he joined forces with the Liberal Party (FPÖ) led by Jörg Haider; later he witnessed the justification of his strategy when the extreme rightwing party collapsed in the general elections on 24th November 2002; he has now succumbed due to his inability to control the extreme rightwing parties.

SPÖ leader Alfred Gusenbauer will soon be asked by the President of the Republic, Heinz Fisher to start negotiations in order to form the next government coalition. These talks are due to take several weeks. Political analyst Peter Ulram recalled the importance of the 400,000 voting slips that still had to be counted. Indeed after these slips have been counted, "it may be that the Alliance for the Future of Austria does not achieve the 4% necessary to enter Parliament, in this case the Social Democrats and the Greens will have the absolute majority," he stressed. "If the BZÖ enters Parliament a "grand coalition" between the Social Democrats and the Conservatives led by Alfred Gusenbauer would be the "only" possible option," declared Peter Ulram who excludes an alliance between the Popular Party and the two extreme right wing parties due to the fact that "some people find themselves in conflict."

For his part the Secretary General of the SPÖ, Norbert Darabos, declared that his party was ready to undertake negotiations both with the Popular Party –with a view to forming a "grand coalition – as well as with the Greens. Finally Alfred Gusenbauer stressed that the ÖVP and the Greens were "potential partners" adding "the quicker a new government is formed the better it will be for Austria." According to the polls most Austrians would be in favour of a "grand coalition." The Popular Party and the Social Democrat Party have already governed the country together between 1947 and 1966 as well as between 1987 and 2000.

General Election Results 1st October 2006 in Austria

Participation rate: 74.2%

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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