Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

Update Austria: New elections likely

by Almanax Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 05:03:45 AM EST

This is just a brief update about the political situation in your favourite alpine EU state (mine anyway), where new elections seem increasingly likely:

As some of you may recall, the recent elections on 1. October 2006 led to major losses of the governing Christian conservative "People's Party" (VP) which fell from over 40% to slightly over 34% and came in second behind the Social Democrats (SP) who also lost but much less [see details in this diary and this comment on ET _DoDo]. The Green Party made the third place for the first time in their history, but with only some 500 (!) votes before the resurgent new Freedom Party (FP) under its new, perpetually smirking xenophobe and anti-EU leader Strache. On the fourth place the VP's late coalition partner, the BZ (the more opportunistic splinter of the old Freedom Party) just made it into parliament.

Promoted by Colman


The following are the theoretically possible majority coalitions and the reasons they haven't materialised:

  • VP - BZ - FP: Although the VP under Schssel infamously formed a coalition with the old FP in 2000 (leading to the "EU sanctions" against Austria), they are somewhat more reluctant to work with the new, even more radical right-wing FP now. Moreover, BZ and FP - the two splinter parties that emerged from the old Freedom Party which broke apart under the strain of governing [with BZ staying in the government coalition] - still hate each other. Also, the new FP leader Strache has little to gain from entering a coalition with the VP as ineffectual and incompetent small partner (this, after all, is what killed the old FP). Much better for him to lean back and pose as the upright opposition man.

  • SP - BZ - FP: The SP refuses to work with either BZ or FP due to ideological and (one must assume) personal differences. The same points as above hold with respect to BZ-FP.

  • SP - Greens - FP/BZ: The same points as above, and the Greens are probably the party most opposed to either FP or BZ. Had the BZ not made it into parliament (they only did so by 0.1%), an SP-Green coalition would have been possible.

  • SP - VP: This was the final and most realistic possibility and widely assumed to come about. Austria has a very long history of the so-called "Grand Coalitions" between SP and VP, which pretty much governed the country between them before the rise of the "old" FP in the 1990s disrupted traditional political certainties. However, the SP is very resentful of the current VP which has governed with much arrogance and contempt in the last 7 years and pushed through many reforms hated by the Social Democrats and their base (such as university fees). Moreover, the election campaign was very personal and dirty (for the Austrian context) and has created a lot of additional personal animosity.

Nevertheless, as the only realistic possibility for a government, coalition talks began a few days ago. However, they've now ground to a stand-still. This is partly due to the above mentioned differences which led to an icy climate from the beginning. But the trigger was that while talking with the VP, the SP cooperated with the FP and the Greens (a rather unusual combination!) to force through an official parliamentary inquiry into the VP-BZ government's very controversial acquisition of Eurofighter jets.

At the moment it looks like neither SP nor VP will back down, which will make new elections inevitable.

Some Images for illustration:

The current/parting Chancellor and leader of the VP, Wolfang Schssel. He likes to present himself (not unsuccessfully) as the serious, reliable elder statesman:

Alfred Gusenbauer, the notoriously unphotogenic leader of the Social Democrats [edit: the "unphotogenic" is an unfair stereotype per se, but accurate insofar as Gusenbauer does not sell himself very well generally]. In my opinion, he embodies many of the flaws of the current SP (maybe a later diary), although his basic attitudes and opinions seem to be in the right (or rather, left) place:

Alexander Van der Bellen, the well-liked leader of the Green Party and an Economics Professor. He has helped build up the Greens from a fringe party with about 5% to a formidable force of about 10-11%. However, my feeling is that this support is still somewhat shakey compared to the seemingly inborn minimum of 10% the right-wing FP will always poll (almost) no-matter what.

Hans Christian Strache, the smirking face of the new radical right in Austria. In the first session of the new parliament yesterday, these sad jokers turned up with blue flowers stuck to their suits, the erstwhile symbol of the German nationalists in the Habsburg Monarchy and later adopted by the forbidden Nazi party in the First Republic (before the Anschluss to the Third Reich). The poster reads "GERMAN instead of 'I no understand' You have the choice!":

The following is an earlier, typical poster of the new FP. As can be seen, it shows a muslim woman in a Burka made from the EU flag. It reads: "Shall that be our future? Austrians say NO! Austria remains free!". Quite an amazing merging of stereotypes directed against the EU, negotiations with Turkey and the relatively large Turkish minority in Austria. It is quite telling for the base effectiveness the Freedom Party achieves by targeting the lowest instincts:

Finally, we have the sleazy frontman of the BZ, Peter Westenthaler. He changed his original Czech surname "Hojac" to the present German sounding one (his mother's maiden name), supposedly because the former was too foreign for his xenophobe pals in the old Freedom Party and new BZ. He is the prototype of the incompetent, aggressive opportunists that were swept into the highest positions of Austrian politics during the rise of the old FP under Jrg Haider (whose personal secretary he was). Schuessel gave them access to government through his decision to form a coalition with Haider's FP in 2000. The latter is now also in the BZ, governor of the southern state Krnten and pulling the strings from behind.  

Display:
My first diary! I finally managed to write one after long-time lurking. Hopefully more will follow.

Best & Good Night

by Almanax on Tue Oct 31st, 2006 at 07:55:39 PM EST
I hope, too!

To second afew's pondering, what do you think, who'd benefit from new elections? Can you limit my ear that both FPÖ and BZÖ would be among the benefitters?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 05:39:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
My feeling is that the FPOE would most likely benefit, probably at the expense of the OEVP and BZOE. But that's just a rough estimate.

I don't think the BZOE has done anything to improve its standing since the election, on the contrary, the "brawl affair" - although petty and probably not that important in itself - has highlighted the rather odious personality traits of Westenthaler and given him some bad headlines. More importantly, the FPOE has successfully established itself as the main right-wing opposition party and will probably attract more support as such, whereas the BZOE is really just a few left-overs and opportunists who have barely made it into parliament. I'd argue that they've got the "loser" image among the two right wing parties now. And who wants to vote for the losers? Westenthaler's justifications on national TV that he was really the "winner" of the election (I think he didn't even get 2% in Vienna, his home district) was rather ridiculous. To me it is not really clear why anyone would support the BZOE unless you're in Kaernten and a fan of Haider.

And if you stoop to the level of voting either for BZOE or FPOE, you won't object to the FPOE's xenophobe, German nationalist ideology, so that wouldn't hinder you. I don't know how many of the BZOE voters made a conscious decision not to vote for the FPOE out of bitterness about the break-up of the old FPOE and loyalty issues related to that. I'd wager not too many outside the core of their membership.

If the BZOE drops out, the positive thing would be that Greens and SPOE could probably form a majority coalition if they maintain their results. On the other hand, BZOE-FPOE infighting is no good for the right-wing as a whole. On balance though, I'd probably like to see the BZOE go. I favour a Green-SPOE coalition and I don't want the BZOE guys in parliament just to attack the FPOE, and there's really no other good reason for them to be there and many against it.

On the other hand, the vote for the BZOE outside Kaernten is already that low that it's hard to imagine how it could decrease further, and within Kaernten the BZOE has a huge support base built up over many years and held together by Haider. They might get a direct mandate from there even if they lose further elsewhere.

by Almanax on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 04:52:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't feel like I can make an informed judgement about how a new election would turn out for the OEVP, SPOE and Greens. If you would force me to make a prediction I would say OEVP down, SPOE about the same with a tendency up, Greens slightly up. But that's a guess than anything else.
by Almanax on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 04:54:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Give Almanax some mojo!! (Excellent rating) Great first diary...thank you for this informative piece...and please keep us updated on developments!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 06:07:56 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Excellent, Almanax, and welcome (as a poster, at least!)

Is anything happening, as you see it, to change the basic spread of the last election? Or do you think it's likely the situation will be hung yet again?

And is the only way out of it that the Social and Christian Democrats take a deep breath and make another great coalition?

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 03:21:34 AM EST
The major possibility for a change is the following: the BZOE only just scraped together the 4% necessary to make it into parliament. They got 4.1% in the end, but only due to a very strong showing in Joerg Haider's federal state Kaernten (>20%, around 1-2% in the rest of Austria).  

Right after the election the BZOE's frontman Westenthaler became embroiled in a rather ridiculous and ugly "brawl-affair" - his bodyguard allegedly beat up the press-chief of a former BZOE minister who had quit the party shortly before the election out of disgust about their xenophobe policies.

This might just be enough to push the BZOE out of parliament in the next election, which - if SPOE and Greens manage to repeat their result - would mean that they have enough seats to form a majority coalition.

But it's uncertain. Maybe the BZOE will hold on to their votes, maybe they'll get a direct mandate from Kaernten next time (despite their very strong showing, they missed it this time but only by very little). Greens and SPOE might gain slightly from the 2% or so voters who supported the party of Euro MP Hans-Peter Martin (named after him) in the last election, because that party vowed not to run again after missing parliament due to the 4% barrier. But it is questionable whether Greens and SPOE could gain enough to form a coalition if the BZOE does not drop out (if the BZOE remains in parliament, Greens and SPOE need more than an additional 2%).

So it's risky for the SPOE, for it might well lose its very slight lead to the OEVP again. Schuessel could then lay claim to holding onto the Chancellorship and thus have more incentive to form a great coalition from a stronger position.

Hopefully, the FPOE would not gain more than they already have, although they display a very cocky attitude at the moment and might pick up votes from a disintegrating BZOE and perhaps even some dissatisfied voters from the Hans Peter Martin Party. If the OEVP and FPOE gained a lot (not very likely), there might be a theoretical possibility for a FPOE-OEVP coalition. Schuessel might be tempted to have a go at that, after all, he has shown in the past that he's not above working with the far right. And Strache might agree to a coalition when rewarded with some office, as long as he doesn't have to work with BZOE (which in this scenario, would not be necessary).

However, new elections would be unpopular, and it's quite possible that a similar situation as the current arises. So maybe the OEVP and SPOE will overcome their animosity after all. We'll see and I'll keep you posted.

by Almanax on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 07:07:47 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The Austrian state television is reporting polls that almost 80% of the population favour a continuation of negotiations between OEVP and SPOE, although 50% seem to think that new elections are the best course if these should fail.
by Almanax on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 07:19:48 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Right after the election the BZOE's frontman Westenthaler became embroiled in a rather ridiculous and ugly "brawl-affair" - his bodyguard allegedly beat up the press-chief of a former BZOE minister who had quit the party shortly before the election out of disgust about their xenophobe policies.

Do you think this affair, while disgusting those already not voting for the pack, will strip off any BZÖ voters?

BTW, hast du kein Umlaut an der Tastatur?

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 07:34:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You are probably right to doubt how important that "brawl affair" will be. However, since the BZOE really cannot afford any losses at all, it might contribute to its possible demise. More important might be the general feeling that the FPOE is the real heir to the Austrian radical right, whereas the BZOE is just a bunch of left-overs with no clear convictions or achievements.

Wegen der Umlaute... ich habe den Artikel auf einer englischen Tastatur geschrieben (lebe derzeit in London). Werde es noch ausbessern, falls ich die Zeit finde.

by Almanax on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 08:06:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Some Westenthaler fun I found:



*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 08:21:29 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The first two are particularly to the point. The quarrel about the bilangual road signs in Kaernten is hard to top in terms of pettiness and baseness on part of Haider and the BZOE.
by Almanax on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 03:23:33 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Great diary!! Thanks for that - I had only an inkling about Austrian politics before. It was an eye-opener that Austrian politics, like the Netherlands, work with "great coallitions".

Interesting that both populist, hard right movements and green parties are also on the march in the Netherlands.

by Nomad on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 04:38:58 AM EST
It was an eye-opener that Austrian politics, like the Netherlands, work with "great coallitions".

Actually, you could just as well say that that's how they didn't work. The Austrian Grand Coalitions worked by the two big parties dividing up every post among themselves, and mutually turning a blind eye to the others' shady dealings. This was the system of "Proporz". Haider's and the FPÖ's rise (and fall) can in no small part be ascribed to the mistaken view that he would clean up this corrupt system.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 05:37:57 AM EST
[ Parent ]
there's another eye-opener. Didn't the Austrians decide via what the Dutch call a "Regeerakkoord" - a government contract on policy for the coming period with the goals and priorities outlined and agreed upon by all parties within the coalition?
by Nomad on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 07:07:55 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes they did, but I am speaking of a completely different thing. When I said positions perhabs you thought of ministerial positions, but I meant stuff like oversight authority managers, media company managers, state company managers, judges etc.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 07:28:32 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, I did think of minsterial positions, and the like. Judges? Media oversight managers? Are these postions not decided independent of the government?? This sounds somewhat... Spanish.
by Nomad on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 09:34:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If you have a Grand Coalition so big the opposition doesn't even have a blocking minority, there is no "independent of the government" anymore. That's Proporz to you.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 03:11:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I've been reading the Wikipedia entry, too. Europe is crazy sometimes. Chalk one point to the benefits of the European Union, it seems...
by Nomad on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 08:38:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is partly due to the above mentioned differences which led to an icy climate from the beginning. But the trigger was that while talking with the OEVP, the SPOE cooperated with the FPOE and the Greens (a rather unusual combination!) to force through an official parliamentary inquiry into the OEVP-BZOE government's very controversial acquisition of Eurofighter jets.

As you Austrians never wanted to buy Swedish nuclear reactors maybe you'd like to buy some Swedish JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets instead? ;)

Peak oil is not an energy crisis. It is a liquid fuel crisis.

by Starvid on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 05:35:04 AM EST
Actually, the Gripen was the major alternative and would have been a lot cheaper than the Eurofighter. The military initially favoured the Gripen, as did the defence minister Scheibner (then FPOE). However, there was a very sudden change in opinion, allegedly due to some intervention of the (former FPOE) Finance Minister Grasser (a rather odious type as far as I'm concerned; also a creature of Haider), which contributed to the appearance that there had been some shady deals.
by Almanax on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 07:16:37 AM EST
[ Parent ]
There was a Gripen-related tussle here in Hungary too, though in the end the Gripen won over Lockheed and its used F-16s.

BTW, what was Westenthaler's government position? I apparently mixed him up with Grasser in an earlier diary.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.

by DoDo on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 07:22:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Nevermind, I found the answer since: he was the faction chief, no minister.

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 07:26:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
You are right of course. Westenthaler was considered too controversial to give him a high government office. I referred to him as "prototype" insofar as he resembles other FPOE/BZOE types such as the former Vice-Chancellor Riess-Passer, the current one Gorbach, the Finance Minister Grasser or really any of the large number of ministers the FPOE has had in the last years (they had an amazing turnover as one minister after another proved unable to do his job well).
by Almanax on Wed Nov 1st, 2006 at 07:51:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]


Display:
Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]