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Austrian Elections 2008: The Background

by nanne Mon Sep 8th, 2008 at 03:28:07 AM EST

Austria is up for a snap election on the 28th of September. The 'grand' governing coalition between the social-democratic SPÖ and the conservative ÖVP collapsed in July. And the reasons for that collapse were interesting in the context of Europe. One of the disagreements was over a statement by the Chancellor, Alfred Gusenbauer of the SPÖ, who promised a referendum if an amended version of the Lisbon Treaty would have to be passed again. But however tempting it is to think that the European Union has become an important item of political contention, the coalition's collapse had been coming for a long time.

'Gusenbauer's SPÖ costs trust'. That was the slogan of the ÖVP in the last Austrian elections (see this youtube diary). Negative campaigning against Gusenbauer didn't pay out immediately for the ÖVP. They lost the election by 34 to 35 percent, and because it was the only possible option, had to get in as the minor party of a grand coalition. The ÖVP had led the government for seven years prior to that election, including one highly controversial coalition with the far-right FPÖ, then led by Jörg Haider. The Chancellor in those seven years, Wolfgang Schüssel, did not take up a position in the government, but remains influential as the leader of the ÖVP in Parliament.

Whether or not as an effect of the ÖVP's negative campaigning against him, Gusenbauer proved to be an unpopular Chancellor. In part this seems to have been due to not being able to hold some of the promises he made during the 2006 electoral campaign. More than anything, this indicates poor public relations on Gusenbauer's part. He should have been able to pin the blame for that on the ÖVP, which was nearly as strong a party.

Promoted by DoDo

Explaining compromises is a crucial part of coalition politics. It is seldom done well by the left.

The campaign

After major losses in a few municipal and state elections in the first half 2008, a leadership struggle flared up in the SPÖ, and Gusenbauer eventually stepped back as party leader, in favour of Werner Faymann. Faymann has been Minister for Traffic, Technology and Research in the grand coalition, and was semi-officially proposed for the post by Gusenbauer. When the ÖVP stepped out of the coalition on July 7th, Gusenbauer immediately stated that he would not run again, and forwarded Faymann as his replacement to run for Chancellor.

Faymann co-authored the open letter in which he and Gusenbauer first announced the SPÖ's promise of a referendum on changes to the European Union. Austrians will have to give their view on the 'behind the scenes poker', but the orchestration of the leadership change seems to have gone smoothly. Faymann appears to be the replacement Gusenbauer wanted after his own position had been undercut by state party leaders, the unions, and simple general unpopularity. Party unity has since at least been achieved on the topic of the EU:

Aus für Gusenbauer: Faymann wird SP-Kanzlerkandidat « DiePresse.comOut for Gusenbauer: Faymann becomes SP Chancellor Candidate « DiePresse.com
Vom Parteipräsidium einstimmig beschlossen wurde Faymann zufolge die neue EU-Linie der Partei. Der Beschluss umfasst insgesamt zwölf Punkte und beginnt mit einem uneingeschränkten Bekenntnis der SPÖ zum "Europäischen Einigungswerk". Die von der ÖVP abgelehnte Volksabstimmung findet sich im Punkt neun, wo es wörtlich heißt: "Deshalb spricht sich die SPÖ dafür aus, künftige Vertragsänderungen, die die grundlegenden Interessen Österreichs berühren, einer Volksabstimmung zu unterziehen." Ausdrücklich nicht bezieht sich dieser Passus auf den EU-Beitritt Kroatiens und der Westbalkanstaaten, wohl aber auf einen allfälligen Türkei-Beitritt.The party presidency unanimously adopted the new EU-line of Faymann. The decision contains twelve points in total, and commences with an unconditional confession of the SPÖ's commitment to the 'project of European Unification'. The referendum, which the ÖVP rejects, can be found in point 9, which reads "For that reason, the SPÖ declares itself to be in favour of a referendum for future treaty changes that affect the fundamental interests of Austria". This passage is explicitly not related to the accession of Croatia and the Western Balkan states, but will be to the eventual accession of Turkey.

Although I don't know how happy we should be about it.

The ÖVP, which are led by the current vice-chancellor Wilfred Molterer, at first seemed to be the favourite to win the elections, as political consultants boasted in the New York Times:

Governing Coalition in Austria Collapses; Early Election Expected - NYTimes.com

Analysts said the snap elections favored the conservatives.

"Today, the People's Party projects more of an image of stability, and the Social Democrats one of instability," said Wolfgang Bachmayer, head of the OGM Institute, a political consulting firm.

In the past week, however, the SPÖ has clearly passed by the ÖVP, as the party has consolidated around Faymann, who is nearly twice as popular than Molterer in head to head polls about the 'Chancellor question', and as Faymann has staged a coup with a five-point plan against price inflation. A minor debate has even broken out in the ÖVP about Molterer's leadership, for which it is however far too late, and which is consequently hurting the ÖVP even more.

At the start of the elections in July, Faymann promised not to further political cynicism by trying to outvote the ÖVP, and to keep to the coalition agreement. Strangely, the ÖVP may have been lulled by this promise and ignored the significant playing room it left for Faymann - and the possibility that he might break it.

So at the end of July, Faymann formulated a package against price inflation, which includes lowering the VAT on food from 10 to 5 percent, lowering some taxes, and stopping all price increases for public services over a period of 12 months. He took this package to Wilhelm Molterer, who currently is the Austrian Finance Minister. And he has since been 'talking' about it with the smaller opposition parties.

This has culminated in Faymann indeed moving to break the coalition pact, as the Wiener Zeitung reports:

Wiener Zeitung: Faymann sagt ÖVP Kampf anWiener Zeitung: Faymann takes fight to ÖVP
SPÖ-Vorsitzender Werner Faymann kündigte am Montag den Koalitionspakt mit der ÖVP auf, der auch vorsieht, dass sich die beiden Regierungsparteien im Nationalrat nicht überstimmen.The SPÖ leader Werner Faymann cancelled the coalition pact with the ÖVP on Monday, which also arranges that both parties do not outvote each other in the Nationalrat.
Faymann begründete den Bruch mit dem Koalitionspartner so: Die ÖVP habe der SPÖ "den Sessel vor die Tür gestellt und Neuwahlen ausgerufen". ÖVP-Obmann Wilhelm Molterer zeigte sich wenig erfreut, die ÖVP halte sich an Vereinbarungen. Deutlicher formulierte Finanzsprecher Günter Stummvoll den Unmut der Schwarzen: Faymann versetze damit jeder Steuerentlastung in den kommenden Jahren den Todesstoß.Faymann gave the following reasons for breaking the pact: The ÖVP would have "put the chair against the door" for the SPÖ and "called for new elections". The ÖVP chief Wilhelm Molterer showed little joy, the ÖVP would keep to its commitments. Finance speaker Günter Stummvoll [where do they come up with those names? - nanne] gave a clearer formulation of the blacks' resentment: Faymann would at least give the death blow to tax relief in the coming years with his actions.

The head to head rivalry between the two largest parties is not the entire story of this election. Both parties are now polling at or near their historical lows. The small parties stand to gain, in particular the far-right FPÖ and BZÖ. The story of those two parties is worth a diary of its own. But here's the short version. In the 1999 elections the FPÖ won big under the leadership of Jörg Haider, and joined in a coalition with the ÖVP. The party fell apart in 2002 over a dispute between more and less pragmatic members. Haider subsequently started the BZÖ, in 2005. All the while he has remained governor of his personal fiefdom, the southern state of Carinthia.

Aside of the two far-right parties in Parliament, the Greens complete the current opposition. They have not profited much from the decline of the SPÖ and ÖVP, but they are polling slightly above their performance in 2006. And then there is one liberal member of parliament from the LIF party, who got in through a 'list connection' between the SPÖ and the LIF in the 2006 elections. The liberals are now polling much better, with some polls showing them above the threshold, which would absolve them of the need to once again form a list connection.

The rules

Austria's parliament is split up in two, with a federal chamber called the 'Nationalrat' and the state chamber called the 'Bundesrat'. This is similar to the division between Bundestag and Bundesrat in Germany, although the powers of the Austrian Bundesrat are much more restricted. The Nationalrat consequently forms the main arena for politics. There are 183 seats in the Nationalrat.

The elections for the Nationalrat follow a district-based proportional system with 43 districts. The system for seat distribution is stacked, with the 43 districts being divided among the 9 States of Austria before they are added up to the federal total. The system apparently also leads to so-called 'overhang seats', even though it is not a mixed member proportional system like the German one (no such thing as a Zweitstimme in Austria). This may be due to the 4% of the national vote threshold, or to the stacked nature of the system. As noted, the 4% threshold can be overcome by engaging in a 'list connection' with a larger party. But there are few historical examples of that. All Austrians from age 16 are entitled to vote (16-18 for the first time), and all Austrians from age 18 have the right to be listed as candidate.

The stacked system is best shown in the following image of Wikipedia, from the German-language article on the Nationalratswahlordnung.

The polls

Here are the results from the three latest polls, as well as the results in 2006 (and in brackets, how much the parties would win or lose).

Party|AgencyOGMGallupMarket3-Poll av.2006
SPÖ2928282835 (-7)
ÖVP2727252634 (-8)
Grüne1212121211 (+1)
FPÖ1717201810 (+8)
BZÖ76564 (+2)
LIF44341 (+3)

On the basis of the dynamics of the race, the Greens don't have much more upward potential, they could climb 1 or 2 points due to the popularity of their leader. The SPÖ, however, is well-positioned to shoot upwards, as it is determining most of the stories on the race right now, and its candidate is much more popular than the ÖVP's. The FPÖ seems to have peaked, but will in all probability come out ahead of the Greens. Haider's BZÖ should also win a few seats. One big question is whether the LIF or another small party gets in.

Note that though an ÖVP/FPÖ/BZÖ coalition would currently have a majority, it is unlikely that it will come about because of the personal differences between Haider and the FPÖ, and a relatively poor position for the ÖVP in what would be a fragile coalition. The signs favour another grand coalition.

There are many more polls and there is much more background in the somewhat ill-structured Wikipedia article on the elections.

Mostly a press review, aided by some history of following the past elections and the aftermath of the Lisbon Referendum in Ireland. The issues have been left a bit on the side, as have most of the parties.

Stuff for interested ET'ers ;-)

Myself, I am mostly watching this as another object lesson of elections for the left. Faymann appears to be a smart political operator. I don't agree with some of his positions. But that is not what I'm looking at right now.

Austria contains some lessons on how (not to) deal with the far-right, perhaps there will be more on that from me.

(it's beautiful too, but that's a whole different story)

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sun Sep 7th, 2008 at 09:33:05 AM EST
If the elections were held on August 28th, can we get the results ?

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères
by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sun Sep 7th, 2008 at 10:14:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
September. Thanks, corrected.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sun Sep 7th, 2008 at 10:17:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As alwys, the best report about Europe is here.

In my travels our Austria  people really do not look like right-wing mythology...

But I guess race is race is race everywhere.
But at least ti seems that everything is quite rationalized in Austria..even hate.

Thanks nanne!

A pleasure

I therefore claim to show, not how men think in myths, but how myths operate in men's minds without their being aware of the fact. Levi-Strauss, Claude

by kcurie on Mon Sep 8th, 2008 at 03:17:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for the background information, nanne. So far I haven't been paying to much attention, so your diary is very helpful.

The only thing I have seen so far is that Haider want's to get involved again. Unfortunately!

by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Sep 7th, 2008 at 11:01:16 AM EST
Will stay in Carinthia, as he always has. But unfortunately his candidature at the top of the BZÖ list does promise to give them a few more seats.
by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sun Sep 7th, 2008 at 12:20:05 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The referendum call by Gusenbauer and his successor has been reported in the 28 June Salon.

The reaction to the referedum call and the coalition breakup has been reported, and the background briefly discussed, in the 8 July Salon.

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

by DoDo on Sun Sep 7th, 2008 at 04:45:37 PM EST
To lift some things out:


The newspaper in question is Austria's leading tabloid which has a modus operandi similar to the Murdoch-press. Basically it bashes immigrants and Brussels for a living and was instrumental in the rise of the FPÖ. Given its abysmal performance since the election it seems that the SPÖ was running for cover and inadvertently gave the ÖVP an excuse to break the coalition.

An interesting subtext of this election is that Faymann seems to be chummy with the owner of the Kronen Zeitung. See e.g. his German wiki.

I'd thought we'd get over this aspect of Blairism, but looking at Sarkozy and Faymann, it seems eeehm, press relations (relations in the press) are still vitally important.

by nanne (zwaerdenmaecker@gmail.com) on Sun Sep 7th, 2008 at 05:14:45 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Please explain the "outvote" procedure to which you refer, unaccustomed as I am to parliamentary systems.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Sun Sep 7th, 2008 at 08:44:57 PM EST
No 'procedure'; it simply means that the parliamentary representatives of one party vote against a proposal of their coalition partner in the government. The dictionary also gives "to vote down" and "overrule".

*Lunatic*, n.
One whose delusions are out of fashion.
by DoDo on Mon Sep 8th, 2008 at 03:26:03 AM EST
[ Parent ]
As I suspected.  Thanks.  "Vote against" or "vote down" would be the clearest for me.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Sep 8th, 2008 at 09:48:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]
On the EU angle.

It looks very much as if the motivation was to win back voters from the far-right parties; assuming that they were attracted by those parties' Eurosceptic, xenophobic, keep-Turkey-outside-of-the-EU rhetoric, and that the SPÖ has to approach these themes its own way. But the new line didn't came down well at all with the more traditional clientele of the SPÖ, and their supporters in the media. All of these and the party bureaucracy were also pissed by learning of such a major policy change from a newspaper article, what's more, an article in a questionable tabloid (see upthread).

So as much as I would welcome a more democratic approach to EU reform, I don't like what Gusenbauer and Faymann did at all.

Meanwhile, while everyone knows Haider, he is no more the big menance. As you can see from the poll numbers in the diary, Haider's attempt of ditching and re-establishing his party didn't really work out: he could retain his stable local base, but most far-right voters stayed with the FPÖ. The FPÖ's new leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who comes from the party's former second strongest base Vienna, is even more hardcore on the hate front (he even had connections with open neo-Nazis in his youth). And just like Haider, he is a politician winning votes as much with hot rhetoric as with good appearance:

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

by DoDo on Mon Sep 8th, 2008 at 03:44:30 AM EST

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