The Austrian government collapsed on Monday after months of acrimonious dispute between the nation’s two largest parties. New elections are slated for 28th September after the People’s Party (OVP) withdrew from the governing coalition.
The leftist Social Democratic Party (SPO) and the conservative People’s Party had been locked in an uneasy governing coalition since January 2007. The inconclusive results of the election in October 2006, in which the Social Democrats won 35 per cent of the vote and the People’s Party 34 per cent, meant that neither could form a government with a smaller party, and the major parties were forced to join together.
Meanwhile, fears about rising consumer prices have aggravated longstanding tensions over immigration. Public sentiment toward the European Union has also soured drastically, and analysts believe that in the forthcoming election these trends could benefit far-right parties.
The populist right-wing Freedom party (FPO)’s support now stands at 20 per cent – doubling their share of two years ago, making it unlikely that a government will be formed without them. For the first time since Joerg Haider’s rise to prominence in 1999 the party is in with a solid chance. In 1999 Haider won a nice chunk of power on the back of growing discontent with the coalition, with anti-immigration policies, Euroscepticism and promises to preserve cultural identity. Nine years later, the issues seem all too familiar, with hostility to Europe again a potent force in Austrian politics: the latest Eurobarometer poll found only 28 per cent of Austrians were positive about the EU – the lowest among the union’s 27 member states.
‘Big Parties’ forced to the right
Despite the official stance of the Social Democrats and the People’s party to rule out a coalition with the party, the Freedom Party’s growing popularity has already forced the main parties to the right. The People’s party has grown tougher on immigration – to the extent of deporting asylum-seekers resident in Austria for nearly a decade. And while still pro-Europe, the party rejects Turkish membership and is committed to holding a referendum before any such step.
The Social Democrats, meanwhile, have moved closer to the Freedom party on Europe. In April, party leader and Austria’s Chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer, was replaced. It is widely accepted that his political undoing was both self-inflicted and multi-faceted, but most notably he fell foul of a powerful anti-EU faction in Austrian society. Hans Dichand, the 88-year old publisher of the Kronen-Zeitung newspaper, is one of Austria’s major architects of political campaigns. Dichand had been writing opinion pieces for months under the pseudonym “Cato” against the EU’s new Lisbon Treaty. By signing that document, Dichand argued, the government had sacrificed the country’s sovereignty.
As recently as late June, advisors warned Gusenbauer not to be swayed by the paper’s clout just to boost his popularity among Austrians. But 43 per cent of Austrians read the Kronen-Zeitung, and recent opinion polls indicated only a 16 per cent approval rating for the chancellor. So in a stunning display of flip-flopping, the chancellor signed an open letter to Dichand, announcing referenda for future EU treaties. Dichand acknowledged this gesture of submission and thanked the chancellor, then proceeded to promote Gusenbauer’s colleague, Werner Faymann, as the SPÃ–’s candidate for chancellor in this year’s new elections. Faymann has since replaced Gusenbauer as leader of the Social Democrats.
Explaining the rise
As the coalition crumbled, Haider’s former party, led by Heinz-Christian Strache, has reached out to the ranks of blue-collar workers, the unemployed and energetic pensioners who have had enough rising prices and the bickering of the “big parties.”
It has also flourished since Haider branched off with a minority in 2005 to start up the BZO, or the Alliance for the Future of Austria, partly to hamper the rise of the 39-year old upstart Christian Strache. Strache, who once staged paramilitary games with fellow gun enthusiasts in the forests of the Austrian province of Carinthia and was affiliated with the now-banned neo-Nazi Viking Youth group, uses tried and tested methods to win popular support. He calls for more social services for the needy, and agitates against EU dictates. Most alarmingly, he is responsible for the political posters for his parties that have slogans like “Daham statt Islam” (Home, not Islam) and “Deutsch statt nix versteh’n” (German, not “I don’t understand”).
Strache’s political mentor, Jerg Haider, turned the Party into the country’s second-largest using the same rhetoric nine years ago. After the September election, Strache hopes have a role in shaping the new government, and his prospects look good.
How has the extreme right wing been able to develop its influence in Austria, a country where the social democrats have been in power for decades? Many point to Europhobia – Austria since its accession in 1995 has had an official pro-EU stance that belies the undercurrent of public dissatisfaction with Brussels. This is a trend, however, that is not unique to Austria.
Discussions about Turkey’s accession to the EU have become mired in Austria and Turkey’s historical enmity, that reached its pinnacle in the Ottoman siege of 1683 and is today manifest in uneasy relations with insular Turkish communities in Vienna. Moreover, some argue that Austrians are easily seduced by far-right rhetoric because of a fear of the consequences of immigration caused partly by the country’s small geographical size. Many Austrians fear that the country may not cope with the influx of immigrants which would inevitably result if the EU borders stretch any farther.
It’s the government, stupid
Less attention has been paid to the question of Austria’s government itself. In 1999 Joerg Haider won more than a quarter of the votes, successfully capitalising on widespread disillusionment with the traditional governing parties of Austria, employing a mixture of racist agitation against foreigners, social demagoguery and a campaign against corruption and nepotism.
It is a truism in Austrian politics in the last 20 years that the Freedom Party has made strong gains in times of grand coalitions. For the bulk of the post-war era, the two popular parties have ruled the nation jointly. As a result, Austria has seen decades of social calm and only cautious reform. Social philosopher Norbert Leser has criticised the coalition, arguing that by strengthening the centre, the grand coalition drives many disgruntled voters to the fringes.
Scholarly debates have tended to attribute the rise of the ultra-right to the political dilapidation of the larger traditional parties.
For example, Austria’s economy is characterised by a large number of small and mid-size factories that co-exist with a large portion of the economy under state control. The private factories are primarily orientated to the domestic market, and the opening up of the east European states after the Cold War, the entry of Austria into the European Union and the consequences of globalisation have increased competition and reduced the political and economic room for manoeuvre for traditional forms of social collaboration in Austria. A part of the middle class feels that its social status and its material security are under threat. It is here that the Freedom Party gains a foothold.
Throughout the 1990s, the Social Democrat-led coalition government made big changes to the economy. One strategy was to consolidate the national budget by cutting back state debt and reducing the level of new debt. As in all other European countries, social security payments were cut, leading to a bleak social climate. The system of proportional representation centralised and boosted the power of the ‘big parties’ and prevented opposition against government policies. Increasingly, the political establishment developed into a stronghold for economic favouritism and nepotism. The Freedom Party was able to capitalise on growing dissatisfaction with the lumbering party system. Haider repeatedly emphasised that “the aim is to complete the liberal ideas of constitutional and free rights through the liberation of the people from the political parties…. the power cartels of the grand coalition, into which both the main parties have fled in order to maintain their areas of power, will be stripped of their significance.”
The Freedom Party, now as then, touts the importance of the free economy, the most important element of which is private property. It believes politics should not be limited to the protection of existing property, but should ensure that every individual can, through their own efforts, actually acquire property.
This is reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s propaganda about “people’s capitalism”, which enabled the former British Prime Minister to mobilise sections of the middle class in a campaign to dismantle the welfare state system. The Freedom Party is also seeking to find broad acceptance for measures such as rationalisation, flexibility, wage cuts and the abolition of measures designed to protect the rights and conditions of ordinary workers.
The racist elements of the Freedom Party’s policy is a political strategy that it reinforces through its social and economic policies. Their racism serves to mobilise the most backward sections of society and to divide with growing social tensions. The stripping away of all rights for foreign workers is envisaged as a means of establishing a cheap wage sector which, in turn, can be utilised to reverse the existing union-employer contract system governing wages and conditions.
On Tuesday the new Social Democrats chairman Werner Faymann declared on Austrian television that he hopes to be the new chancellor of Austria. He promises open discussion on matters of the EU, and his official line is that he will be happy to work with the People’s Party. He remains insistent that he will not form a coalition with the Freedom Party. However, some suspect that at least one of the main parties will form a coalition with the Freedom Party after the elections. Strache expects his Freedom Party to make strong gains, and it looks like he may be right.
The last time around, in 2000, the European Union imposed diplomatic sanctions on Austria when the Freedom Party, with Haider at its head, became a member of the two-party national governing coalition. When Wolfgang Schuessel, the head of the People’s Party at the time and the elected chancellor, agreed to form a coalition with Haider’s Party, it was on the condition that Haider retire as head. The agreement still provoked the European Union into imposing sanctions against Austria.
Coalitions with the Freedom Party have collapsed in the past (as in 2003) over key policy disagreements, but this time around, with more support and a more palatable leader, the Freedom Party may get a piece of the pie with less incident.
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This post was written by Alexa Van Sickle