September 28, 2008
The Austrian grand coalition broke up in the summer and they went into an early election. The voters have had enough: the two major parties achieved their worst results since 1945. There are at least three possible coalitions. Although the Austrian elections seem to be the same old boring thing for the rest of the EU, in Central Europe, where seven current states – all but Croatia also EU-members – had been governed from Vienna for centuries, it still remains an important point of reference. The election campaign thus involved some issues with the neighbors, for instance, a corruption scandal that involved the Austrian (LIF) and Hungarian Liberals which forced LIF strongmen to resing from the race – during the week before the election.
Austrian politics were thought to be consensus-seeking and boring for the rest of the world until in 1999 a very populist Jörg Haider (under the FPÖ flag) achieved a spectacular result and become a member of the national government of an EU-state. The heads the governments of the other 14 EU members decided to cease cooperation with the Austrian government, as it was felt in many countries that the cordon sanitaire against coalitions with parties considered as extremists.For example, for several months, other national leaders refused to shake hands and socialize with members of the ÖVP-FPÖ government. The other EU members were very unhappy that the Austrians have given up their habit of voting for reliable, predictible Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and Social Democrats (SPÖ). However, Austrian remained one of the world’s most peaceful, rich and quite countries in the world.
The ÖVP-FPÖ government, lead by Wolfgang Schüssel, managed through the international upheaval, gained support, and won another elections. Jörg Haider has proven more of a showman than a real radical: while his party held executive power, Austrian remained a very peaceful, prosperous and rather predictible country. In 2005 however FPÖ imploded, Jörg Haider started a new party called BZÖ and the next elections resulted in a tie, leading to an SPÖ-ÖVP grand coalition under the leadership of Chancellor Gusenbauer. The undecided election, the coalition of compromises led to an unimpressive governance, a loss of confidence in the Chancellor and an early election.
The result are not extremely surprising, and for the first sight lead to a probably premature conclusion that Austria is in a deep political crisis. The three successors of the former FPÖ (right-wing liberal FPÖ proper; Jörg Haiders’s populist/patriotic BZÖ, and left-wing liberal LIF) altoghether collected as many or even more votes as SPÖ, the relative winnner of the elections. The long-established small party, the Greens, who have never tasted executive responsibilites, has lost ground. The fringe parties remained on the margins of Austrian political life, and for the time being LIF, too.
The position of the parties have changed a lot in the last decade. The SPÖ, which had been a predictable, pro-EU, moderate left-wing party has campaigned under a rather Eurosceptic flag. Some people predict an SPÖ-FPÖ led coaliton, which would look rather ironic if you consider the largely left-wing protests against ÖVP-FPÖ coaltion with Mr. Haider back in 2000. Another possibility is a clear right-wing coalition lead by ÖVP if FPÖ and BZÖ can leave aside their formal infighting which has lead to a party split in 2005. However, the Austrian press an analyst give the odds to yet another grand coalition of SPÖ-ÖVP.
Will it matter in European issues? The Austrian population is deeply suspicious of the EU, but looks to be to cautious to leave it behind. (In fact, Austria looks to be one of the biggest winners of the European economic integration despite their deep faith in the rising prices since the euro was invented). This leave a mark on the government: any coalition will consist Eurosceptic voices. The SPÖ has promised to hold referndums on future European treaties, which could at some point drive out Austria from the Union. However, given Austria’s consensus-seeking political culture and its dependence on Germany and the former Habsburg countries it is very unlikely that the new government will seriously go against its European partners.
The day before the elections the independent daily paper, Die Presse called for an electoral reform. Despite the fuss, the small parties have not changed very much and lead by the very same people for a long time. New parties do not get into the national assembly if you do not count BZÖ which consist of the other half of the former FPÖ. There is some mobility within the two major parties, but in the undecided elections and grand coalitions they are loosing support and confidence. Austria looks to be undecided again, and probably it needs anothr system to reach a decision.
Link: Election results from diepresse.at (German)Dániel Antal