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So unpopular, he won’t even be fighting the election…

September 7th, 2008

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Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer

… and Haider is back, as an unstable Austria prepares to vote

This is going to be an extremely busy autumn everywhere – whether in the US, here at home, or in the rest of the world. The Canadian election will be held on 14th October and was previewed in an excellent guest article by Jack Peterson last Sunday, and New Zealand, although we await a firm date, is less than ten weeks away. Two countries are holding key leadership elections, as Mofaz and Livni battle for Kadima in Israel, while Taro Aso is seen as the frontrunner to become the LDP’s fourth PM of this term in Japan. A full list of forthcoming elections is available at Adam Carr’s excellent site.

    First with an election is Austria, which votes on Sunday 28th September. While Germany has traditionally been wary of Grand Coalitions (only Kiesinger and Merkel have led one since the war), Austria has embraced them much more warmly, where they held sway from 1945-66, 1987-2000, and since 2007. As recently as 1986, the “big two” Austrian parties, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and People’s Party (ÖVP) commanded 84% of the vote, but with the rise of the Freedom Party (FPÖ) under Jörg Haider, their position steadily eroded in the 1990s, until the landmark 1999 election where the FPÖ secured 27% of the vote and (just) second place nationwide.

An initially extremely controversial ÖVP-FPÖ government, complete with EU sanctions, was formed in early 2000, but when the coalition was renewed after the 2002 elections, with a much weakened FPÖ, no-one batted an eyelid. The disarray in the FPÖ which resulted in their massive loss of support in 2002 continued, until by 2005 Haider (governor of Carinthia 1989-91 and since 1999) formed a breakaway party, the BZÖ, which took the FPÖ’s place in the coalition, and had a powerbase in Carinthia but elsewhere was not much more of a vote-getter than SNP candidates might be in England.

At the 2006 election, the ÖVP slipped back to 34%, allowing the SPÖ to scrape a win by a single point and two seats, and in early 2007, the grand coalition was renewed. However, considering that they lost the election, the ÖVP did very well in cabinet posts, ending up with Finance, Foreign Affairs, and Interior, only leaving the SPÖ with the post of Chancellor itself, in the form of Alfred Gusenbauer. (A UK equivalent of this would see Brown, Osborne, Hague, and Grieve as the “big four”.)

Never a popular government, with Chancellor Gusenbauer getting low ratings quite early on, the coalition collapsed this summer over disagreements on policy, including the EU, and Vice-Chancellor Wilhelm Molterer (Finance Minister and ÖVP leader) pulled the plug. However, not unlike the ALP bringing Bob Hawke to the leadership ahead of the 1983 election in Australia (although they were in opposition), the SPÖ have dumped the hapless Gusenbauer as party leader in favour of the more popular Werner Faymann, Transport minister in the outgoing government.

    The polls would suggest that the Faymann move has been worthwhile for the SPÖ, as although the race remains very close, they have eased ahead of the ÖVP in recent polling. The Freedom Party hovers in the high teens, touching 20% in some polls, while the Greens are in the low teens. (Not only has Austria had by far the highest far-right vote in a modern democracy, the FPÖ’s 27% in 1999 comfortably ahead of anything achieved by Le Pen, the Austrian Greens have also chalked up some of the highest scores anywhere in first-order national elections, with 9.5% in 2002 and 11% in 2006, possibly only beaten by their Latvian cousins’ 16.7% in 2006.) Poll watchers should note however that all the polls wrongly predicted an ÖVP victory in 2006.

Modern Austrian politics would not be complete without Jörg Haider, on the scene since 1986, and after a period where he has taken a back seat, he is now the BZÖ’s lead candidate, after his predecessor ran over a policeman’s foot at Euro 2008. His national re-emergence has generated much interest and the BZÖ’s poll ratings are improving. Austria has undergone a fundamental change in the last 20 years, and the “big two” look set for their lowest ever combined score, maybe below 60%, as the country moves from a political duopoly to something more like Denmark or the Netherlands, with the winning party under 30% – and there are a record number of parties at the election, including the Liberals and the Citizen’s Forum, who scored 18% in the recent Tirol Landtag elections. Parties need to clear 4% to secure representation in the Nationalrat.

It’s anyone’s guess as to what the new government will look like. Austria has never had a minority government or a three-party government, but these are now possibilities as the party system fractures. It may well be that the electoral maths means that the only two-party majority government is another Grand Coalition, which would probably not be widely welcomed, while another possibility which has been touted is a “black-green” coalition (ÖVP-Green) to mirror the situation in Upper Austria (and indeed Hamburg). The FPÖ may find it difficult to enter government due to their anti-EU stance. Whatever happens, for those observers of politics who look beyond the major countries, Austria is at present very far from being dull – and indeed is in one of its most unstable periods in the Second Republic.

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