Austria

Background

Austria has been a federal parliamentary representative democracy since 1920 (reintroduced in 1945). The head of state is the federal president who is directly elected for a six-year term. The president appoints the federal chancellor, usually the leader of the largest party in parliament. The parliament has two chambers; The Nationalrat, (the lower house) and the Bundesrat (the upper house). The lower house is the dominant chamber in the assembly.

Party system and politics in the post-war era

The Austrian party system from 1945 to the 1960s can be described as a "quasi-frozen" system of 2 1/2 parties. It was characterized by an unusually high voter immobility. ÖVP and SPÖ combined would normally hold more than 90 percent of the seats in parliament. In the 1980s the party spectrum was substantially enlarged in number and substance and by the mid 1990s the dual pole system had been replaced by three medium seized parties (SPÖ, ÖVP and FPÖ), plus two small parties (the Greens since 1986 and the Liberal Forum from 1993 to 1999). Voter turnout has traditionally been very high in Austria with more than 90 percent until the election in 1990, and while descending, the country still has a high voter turnouts compared with most European democracies. Austria captured world attention in 1986 when former UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim was elected president despite allegations that he had been involved in atrocities as a German army staff officer in the Balkans during World War II. Also in 1986 the Socialists (subsequently the Social Democrats) and the People's party again joined together in a “grand coalition,” with Social Democrat Franz Vranitzky as chancellor; it retained control of the government through the 1990s. Austria began a partial privatization of state-owned industries in the late 1980s and entered the European Union (EU) in 1995.

Politics in the new era

In the National Council elections of 1999 the Conservative People's Party fell back to third place behind the Freedom Party for the first time, FPÖ thus becoming the second-strongest party in the country. Even though ÖVP chairman and Vice Chancellor, Wolfgang Schüssel, had announced that his party would go into opposition in that case, he entered into a coalition with FPÖ in early 2000. In 2002, disputes within FPÖ resulting from losses in state elections caused the resignation of several FPÖ government members and a collapse of the government. Jörg Haider resigned as FPÖ chairman but kept pulling the strings in his party behind the scenes. Wolfgang Schüssel's ÖVP emerged as the winner of the subsequent 2002 elections for the first time since 1966. FPÖ lost more than half of its voters, but reentered the coalition with Schüssel. Since then, FPÖ has been losing dramatically in almost all local and state elections and has split up into two parties, FPÖ and Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ) which is again led by Haider.

Latest elections

The 2006 general election produced a surprise victory on behalf of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) over Schüssels ruling coalition. The very tight election battle resulted in tough negotiations and finally in a grand coalition of SPÖ and ÖVP. SPÖ leader Alfred Gusenbauer entered the position as chancellor. A snap election, held on 28 September 2008, ended the shortest parliamentary term in post-war Austria. The SPÖ-ÖVP grand coalition was terminated in early July 2008, due to profound policy disagreements, particularly on the EU issue. The election results revealed significant losses for the two major parties, but after agreeing on a government program and the division of portfolios, the new SPÖ-ÖVP coalition was sworn in on December 2, 2008, with Werner Faymann as chancellor.

Sources:

K Heidar and E. Berntzen (1998). Vesteuropeisk politikk: Partier, regjeringsmakt, styreform. Oslo: Kunnnskapsforlaget.

The Austrian Press & Information Service (http://austria.org)

L. Prakke, C. A. J. M. Kortmann and J. C. E. van den Brandhof (2004). Constitutional Law of 15 EU Member States . Vienna: Kluwer.